It is a measure of our times that a speech by industrialist Rahul Bajaj, expressing fear and concern about the government’s unwillingness to take criticism, should be hailed as a heroic gesture.
‘Businessmen criticise government’ should be as routine a news story as ‘Dog bites man’, because the corporate world continuously grumbles about the rules and regulations imposed by the government and demands more and more incentives. Yet, people are cheering for Bajaj, his speech has gone viral and, though his colleagues may continue to be reticent in expressing any view in public, they applauded him at the event – safety in numbers, perhaps.
It is easy to understand why.
Within a day or so after the Bajaj speech video clip began circulating, the Bharatiya Janata Party hit back. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said how such comments could “hurt national interest” and urban affairs minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted about “societies where citizens can weave fake narratives and hurl invectives” being a society “characterized by a fair dose of indiscipline”. Puri is a former diplomat and almost certainly proficient in far more elegant English as well as more finesse than this. The party’s IT cell unearthed old video recordings of Bajaj purportedly to show that he had praised Rahul Gandhi,
The message to Bajaj’s peers is loud and clear – don’t even think of following his example.
At the best of times, Indian businessmen tend to fawn over ministers, often in the most embarrassing way – post the national budget, no matter which government is in power, tycoons never fail to give the finance minister’s proposals 10/10 marks and conferences organised by industry lobbies like CII or FICCI are nothing short of love fests to hail those in power.
But it is not as if the corporate community is not critical – after the Gujarat massacre in 2002, prominent names from the corporate sector, including Deepak Parekh, Azim Premji, Anu Aga and Cyrus Guzder, had made scathing remarks agains the handling of the violence by then chief minister Narendra Modi. Modi never forgot that.
After Modi became the prime minister, things changed dramatically. Now, the leading lights of the Indian corporate world not just shower praise on him personally, but have also, simultaneously, gone into a shell. Forget saying anything remotely critical in public, including about government policies that directly hurt them, even privately they are apprehensive about airing any such view, lest it somehow reaches those in Delhi.
Conversations at social get togethers often drop to whisper level and stories abound about so-and-so having got a “phone call from someone important within hours of saying something against the government”. Much of this is hearsay, but for years now, the Mumbai corporate circuit has discussed the celebrated case of a prominent banker – one who tends to be close to governments – having been shut out from access to central ministries after he made one stray critical comment a year or so after the Modi government came to power regarding the lack of any action on the economic front.
Since access to Delhi somehow still is very important – this is almost three decades after economic reforms which were supposed to let loose the animal spirits of Indian entrepreneurship – no one wants to be seen stepping out of line. Keeping shut becomes the safest option and for further insurance, it is best to lose no opportunity to declare that Narendra Modi is the greatest thing that has happened to India. It can be a rewarding experience in return.
Some of this is understandable. In India, governments still hold a lot of power and can help or harm a company. The licence raj may have gone, but the government can still make things difficult and has the potential to cause real damage via its policies. It is also a huge customer for a variety of goods and services and no one wants to lose out on that. Most of all, it has punitive powers – for all the talk of doing away with ‘tax terrorism’, the government can unleash various agencies, ranging from the Income Tax Department to the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Board of Investigation. Nor does this government believe in being subtle – action follows swiftly, as many politicians have found. As for celebrities, they are even more vulnerable, as Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have discovered.
The troll army – and as we have seen in Bajaj’s case, even ministers – immediately set about maligning the name of anyone seen as being remotely disparaging about not just Narendra Modi or Amit Shah or their government’s policies, but even the conditions prevailing in India. Somehow, the rightwing propaganda machine, official and otherwise, has taken upon itself to attack even those who comment on lynching, rabid bigotry or ‘intolerance’. Does the BJP mean to say that these are its core strengths? Or is it simply unwilling to take any criticism, even if well-meaning?
Bajaj has broken from the ranks, it would appear. The applause at his comments showed that he has some support, even if anonymous. But Shah’s response at the same event, that no one is scared or should be, will not result in anyone following Bajaj’s example. Not one of his fellow businessmen or women will stick their necks out. There are stray exceptions to this, of course, such as Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, but while his comments will be dissected at cocktail parties for some time to come, he will remain the odd man out.
The pall of silence that descended in 2014 will remain firmly in place. Everyone knows and understands that while this government will tolerate – just about – a maverick or two, it will not countenance a rebellion. It has the means to go after each dissident and it will do so with full vigour.
Which is a shame. Many brave individuals and institutions have stood up to this establishment (and many others in the past too). They have paid a heavy price – travel bans, raids, jail – but this has not stopped them or anyone else. From students to journalists to even celebrities, many have braved trolling, abuse and threats. They are not as powerful or privileged as the top business chiefs of India, yet they are braver. They have the example of several American magnates – and celebrities – who routinely go after President Donald Trump and his administration. This is not the US, will be the response – governments here can be vindictive. But that’s a cop-out statement. If many more follow in Bajaj’s footsteps and stand up to make their views known, the government will have to listen.
But no one will, and Modi and Shah know that. It is only partly cowardice – it is also greed and a fear of finding the pipeline shut off. They have skeletons in the cupboard and the inefficiencies of the Indian business sector will be exposed should, say, the banks stop lending. The status quo suits everyone. Bajaj has made his point, everyone has had a moment of relief – now everything will go back to normal.