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The sound of silence

Rahul Bajaj said nothing new but the govt should listen all the same

It speaks volumes for the public discourse under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Bajaj group share prices fell on a day the Sensex held steady after Rahul Bajaj’s candid reference to the regime’s aversion to criticism at a media function in Mumbai. Mr Bajaj chose a high-profile event — an Economic Times award function attended by Mumbai’s movers and shakers — and spoke in the presence of the government’s power elite — Home Minister Amit Shah, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and Railway and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal — ensuring that his comments received the maximum attention. The media and liberal intelligentsia may have raised a cheer at Mr Bajaj’s courage in highlighting an inconvenient truth but the ever-realistic stock market has priced in a possible backlash. Mr Bajaj, who has been known never to mince his words about government policy in the past — he had been a stalwart member of the reform-opposing Bombay Club in the early 1990s — certainly deserves plaudits for his outspokenness. At age 81 and largely retired, it may be said that he can afford to speak truth to power; but the markets know his sons still run large corporations and remain vulnerable to the capricious power of the state’s enforcement apparatus. After all, the group and Mr Bajaj himself have been subject to the attentions of the tax authorities and enforcement directorate during then finance minister V P Singh’s infamous “raid raj” of the 1980s. This perhaps explains why his son, who is Bajaj Auto managing director, chose to play down his father’s comments. Questioning his father’s choice of forum, he also pointed out that his own forthright criticism of demonetisation in 2016 did not invite any retribution.

Mr Bajaj’s comments, though explosive in the current context when even mild criticism runs the risk of attracting sedition laws, mask the fact that, since the Emergency, non-criticism has been the default position of industry. It is, in fact, inaccurate for Mr Bajaj to have said India Inc could have criticised the United Progressive Alliance government openly. Much of the criticism from industry during the UPA regime emerged only during its last months when it was clear the alliance wasn’t coming back to power. Indeed, a long-running in-joke in the media is that even the most powerful of industrialists savage government Budgets and policies in private only to issue emollient non-statements on the record. But it is fair to say that the current regime has set the bar on criticism particularly low. Industry had some idea of this in 2004, when the Confederation of Indian Industry felt it incumbent to apologise for criticism by Anu Aga, Deepak Parekh, and Azim Premji of the Gujarat riots during Mr Modi’s chief ministership. Such prudent self-interest is so ingrained that only Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has chosen to follow-through on Mr Bajaj’s comments by saying the business community was treated like “pariahs”. Perhaps the manifest reluctance of India Inc to be bold and take risks and invest as Mr Modi exhorted them to do in 2017 is a more telling way of expressing its views of this regime’s socio-economic management than dramatic statements from a business patriarch. Rather than hunkering down in defensive mode in the aftermath, as Mr Shah and Ms Sitharaman have done, these are the signals the government should be heeding.

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First Published: Mon, December 02 2019. 23:54 IST

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