To say that the salvos were unexpected is to put it mildly. The timing for critiques of the regime could not have been more appropriate. Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra where the ruling party in Delhi has this past week suffered political humiliation by being ‘ousted’ out of power by its ally the Shiv Sena.On the same day that the SS-NCP-Congress alliance proved its majority comfortably in the assembly and Maharashtra was given a government after a whole month of election results resulted in a hung assembly, the BJP’s strongman was in for another rude shock.
Veteran industrialist Rahul Bajaj told Amit Shah to his face that there was an atmosphere of fear in the country, drawing rare, applause from corporate India and prompting the Union minister to counter the assessment but concede that such perceptions of a fearful environment needed to be removed.
At the Economic Times awards event, surrounded by a host of ministers, policy makers and industrialists, Bajaj also boldly to the 100-day-old incarceration of former finance minister P. Chidambaram without naming him and the controversy over BJP parliamentarian Pragya Thakur allegedly calling Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, a patriot in the Lok Sabha. Rahul Bajaj raised concerns over the ability of the Narendra Modi government to accept criticism, its lack of action against mob lynchings and BJP MP Pragya Thakur’s recent remarks on Nathuram Godse to a crowded room of India Inc elite and top ministers including Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal.
Bajaj is known for being outspoken in a field where few dare to speak truth to power and he did not mince any words during the question-and-answer session when he was among the audience and Shah on the dais. “We are afraid…. This atmosphere is definitely on our minds, but nobody will talk about it, none of my industrialist friends, I will say that openly (applause). But a better reply has to come, not only a denial…. An environment has to be created. A clean environment is very important. Delhi is getting a little better, fine, but an environment has to be created where…,” Bajaj said.
He continued: “In UPA 2, we could abuse anybody, that is a different matter. You are doing good work but still we don’t have the confidence that if we openly criticise you, it will be appreciated. I may be wrong, fine. But we all feel this way that, I cannot speak for everyone, but I should not be saying this. People are laughing, that go and get hanged (applause)….”
The octogenarian industrialist set the tone from the outset by telling Shah that although the minister may not like it, the industrialist was named “Rahul” by Jawaharlal Nehru. Both names are anathema to the Modi-Shah regime. Bajaj also referred to the phrase “tax terrorism” and said it’s not only that, adding he did not know if the word was right or wrong. Then he made the thinly veiled reference to Chidambaram.
Bajaj said: “It’s not only that Bhagwatji (RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat) says lynching is a foreign word. Lynchings happen in the West… minor points maybe, but it creates a hawa. A hawa of intolerance. We are afraid. It is our fault that we are, but there are some things I did not want to say, we see that someone has not even been convicted, not become a convict, not rape, not treason, not murder, white collar crime, very bad, pickpocket, all right, a matter of thousands of crores, yes that is wrong, but without being convicted someone is in jail for 100 days. I am not supporting anybody. I don’t even know the person except hello-hello. In 40-50 years, I have never met any minister in office or at home, Piyush (minister Piyush Goyal who was present) will agree with that because I know him very well. Never asked anything….”
In his opening remarks, Bajaj had said: “I was born anti-establishment, UPA or anybody else. My concern is minor things…. Today anybody can be called a patriot, you know the man who shot Gandhiji, or is there any doubt about that, I don’t know. This was said earlier, you gave the ticket, she won, that’s all right, she won because of your support, no one knew her. Gave her a ticket, then you brought her into the consultative committee. The Prime Minister had said that it would be difficult for him to forgive her, still you brought her into the consultative committee etc. etc. All right, she was removed, and for this session, this small session, she won’t have the permission to attend. This is one example.”
At the outset, Bajaj had said: “I have to wrongly or rightly maintained my reputation, it’s very difficult for me to praise anybody. I was not born that way and I have to be supportive of the poor, of the disadvantaged. My grandfather was supposed to be the adopted son of Mahatma Gandhi. My name, you will not like it, my name Rahul was given to me by Jawaharlalji.” (laughter)
Bajaj did live up to his reputation. Responding to Bajaj, Shah said: “After your question, I don’t think anyone will believe that anyone is afraid. In truth, Bajaj sahab, a hawa has been created. As soon as Pragyaji’s statement came, immediately senior BJP leaders have criticised it and have taken steps, and later she has apologised in Parliament. Actually, there is confusion, whether she was saying about Udham Singhji or Godse, we could not tell because both were named in Raja’s (DMK member A. Raja who was interrupted by Thakur) statement together. But the BJP does not support any such statement, we strongly condemn it and there is no hesitation in saying so.”
“Today anybody can be called a patriot, you know the man who shot Gandhiji, or is there any doubt about that, I don’t know. This was said earlier, you gave the ticket, she won, that’s all right, she won because of your support, no one knew her. Gave her a ticket, then you brought her into the consultative committee. The Prime Minister had said that it would be difficult for him to forgive her, still you brought her into the consultative committee etc. etc. All right, she was removed, and for this session, this small session, she won’t have the permission to attend. This is one example,” the industrialist said.
The home minister was compelled to respond. Shah referred to the mention of apprehension, saying: “About fear, I only say that no one needs to fear. Papers have written a lot about Narendra Modi, people are still writing…. We have been the most written against but still, as you are saying, an atmosphere has been created, we too will have to make an effort to improve it, but I want to say that no one needs to be afraid. People do speak, on affidavit and in Parliament. Nor does anyone want to scare.
“Nor have we done anything whose criticism the government needs to worry about. The government has been run most transparently, we are not afraid of any opposition and if anyone criticises, then going by its merits, we will try to improve.”Shah added: “As far as lynching is concerned, I can only say that lynchings happened earlier and they happen today, perhaps fewer than before. But this is not correct that no one has been convicted, many have been convicted and sentenced, but it does not appear in the media….”
“But even then, if you say that there is a certain kind of atmosphere, we will have to make efforts to improve the atmosphere. But I would like to say that there is no need for anybody to fear… No one wants to scare… and we have done nothing to be concerned about any criticism… The government has run in the most transparent way, and we have no fear of any kind of opposition, and if anyone does criticise, we will look at the merit of the same and make efforts to improve ourselves (Magar phir bhi aap jo keh rahe hain ki ek atmosphere banaa hai, hamein bhi atmosphere ko sudhaarne ka prayaas karna padega… but main itna zaroor kehna chaahta hoon ki kissi ko darne ki koi zaroorat nahi hai… Na koi daraana chaahta hai… Na kuchh aisa karaa hai jiske khilaaf koi bole to sarkar ko chinta hai… Most transparent way mein ye government chali hai, aur hamein kissi bhi prakaar ke virodh ka koi dar nahin hai, aur koi [virodh] karega bhi to uske merits dekh kar hum apne aap ko improve karne ka prayaas karenge),” he said.
On the issue of Pragya Thakur, the home minister noted that neither the BJP nor the Centre supported any of her statements on Godse and that they indeed condemned it. Shah was also quick to add that there may have been some confusion over whether the Bhopal legislator had meant Godse or revolutionary Udham Singh.
Others from corporate India have ventured to make criticism. Anand Mahindra, also CEO of Mahindras is one such, be it the lynchings or Pragya Thakur’s remarks. Here is one of his tweets:
If there’s one thing that worries me about the future, it is dictatorship by mobs…Not too long from now, we will have the largest population in the world & our Demographic Dividend has a flip side that is Disastrous. Quelling these mobs has to be non-negotiable.. https://t.co/Uw7WBR6lXv
— anand mahindra (@anandmahindra) August 10, 2018
Bajaj, a diehard critique
Though the sangh brigade on twitter was intolerant as expected of Bajaj’s remarks, accusing him even of being a Congress stooge, the fact remains that Bajaj has always been a critique as he was also of UPA II in 2013. That time, the Bajaj Auto Chairman, Rahul Bajaj has hit out at the government, blaming it for the slowdown in the economy, while predicting that it will be a “very tough” year for the domestic motorcycle segment this fiscal.
In his letter to shareholders in the company’s annual report for 2012-13, Bajaj said despite growing at over 9 per cent for three successive years under the first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, India failed to “create the necessary infrastructure and investments to maintain healthy growth in difficult times”.
“Instead of focusing on highways, power, rail, ports and IT networks that are critical for sustained growth, we steadily raised the nation’s fiscal deficit to finance consumption-based subsidies and handouts,” he said.
Corporate India and Modi
The anti-Muslim genocidal carnage in Gujarat in February and March 2002 had left the nation aghast. Like all others, business leaders also gave vent to their anger. Deepak Parekh said India’s image as a secular country was damaged. NR Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji condemned the violence. At a Confederation of Indian Industry, or CII, event in April that year, Anu Aga (of Thermax) had received a standing ovation when she gave an impassioned speech on Gujarat. The accusation was that Modi did little to stop the rioteers.
What is a government elected for? If they can’t protect innocent lives… then they should go. Which kind of government allows the killing of women and children? With due respect, I think the home minister and even the Prime Minister should take their share of blame. It’s a national failure. Riots have damaged India’s reputation more in the international forum than what is happening in Pakistan. Do we need to always sabotage our own chances of growth and international goodwill?
Indian corporates must come out in re-building Gujarat. The way we have done after the Bhuj earthquake. We can open community centres, (re)build burnt-down houses and educate children who have been orphaned. We at HDFC will certainly do our bit.”
— Deepak Parekh, chairman, HDFC.
Gujarat’s image as a progressive state has taken a beating because of the recent communal riots. Don’t underestimate the homework that multination companies (MNCs) do on their potential investment destinations, especially in terms of the city risk. They will not set up operations in Ahmedabad or Gujarat because the risk is too high.”
— Azim Premji, WIPRO chief, at IIM Ahmedabad.
Are we ostriches burying our heads in the sand? We frown upon inter-religious marriages but rape women; talk of vegetarianism and don’t even spare children. Such barbaric acts by a few destroy the country’s image. What’s more frightening is educated people justifying violence.’’
Anu Aga, chairperson, Thermax Ltd. and chairperson, CII, Western Region .
As the genocide spread from Ahmedabad to other cities and the countryside, a systematic attempt could be seen to target and destroy the economic base of the Muslim community.”
— Cyrus Guzder, CMD Air Freight, Is Secularism Good for Business? Speaking at CII, Ahmedabad.
(Source: Communalism Combat, March-April 2002
In February 2003, CII held a session at New Delhi for its members to interact with Modi. On the stage with Modi were Rahul Bajaj, Jamshyd Godrej and Tarun Das (then director-general of CII). The businessmen were unrelenting and Modi got incensed. A CII functionary who was closely involved with the event says the speakers chosen for the day (read Bajaj) were men who couldn’t have been controlled. Thereafter, almost 100 CII members from Gujarat threatened to quit over the incident. A handful of Gujarat businessmen known to be close to Modi – Gautam Adani, Karsan Patel (Nirma) and Anil Bakeri (Bakeri Engineers) – set up a rival organisation called the Resurgent Group of Gujarat. And in Delhi, CII saw its access to the BJP-led government curtailed. This was blunting CII’s edge in its core business of lobbying. When Das approached Arun Jaitley, then law minister, he agreed to broker peace – but CII would have to formally apologise. The letter was sent.
The next year, Modi agreed to attend another CII function in Delhi. All went well till a glitch was discovered: the television channels were playing tapes of last year’s acrimonious meeting. “Modi was livid,” recalls the man who had to bear the full brunt of his verbal volley.
However the turning point came in October 2008 with the Tatas coming in publicly in Modi’s support. Tata Motors’ factory to make the Nano at Singur in West Bengal had run into Mamata Banerjee. Exasperated, Ratan Tata, who was steering the group at that time, had said that he was prepared to relocate the factory. It was a prestigious project; many chief ministers activated their bureaucrats to grab it: Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The race was won by Modi, with his then mentor, LK Advani persuading then chief minister of Uttarakhand, Khanduri to sacrifice the prestige of having a Tata manufacturing show, since “Modi needed the inject of respectability.”
The site chosen was Sanand, near Ahmedabad. Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, in their book Nanovation, say the memorandum of understanding for the factory was inked within 96 hours of Tata’s announcement to quit Singur. Tata would later remark: “Usually, a state takes 90 to 180 days for land and other clearances. Gujarat took just three days. It has never happened before.” He then called Modi the “good M” and his Singur tormentor the “bad M”. Modi’s detractors and Tata Motors’ rivals insist that Gujarat gave tax sops worth thousands of crores to get the project. A Gujarat government officer discloses that apart from waiving off the stamp duty and registration charges, Tata Motors was granted VAT refund for 20 years (linked to investment). This was done, he says, because Modi knew “it would catapult the state as an investor-friendly destination.”
During the one in January 2009, immediately after the Nano deal was settled, said one report, “Tata drenched the (Gujarat) chief minister in praise”. And by the time Tata finished his speech, he “found himself locked in a hug with Modi who strode across the podium with open arms”. It is worth noting that Tata’s successor, Cyrus Mistry, chose to make his first public appearance at the Vibrant Gujarat summit held in January later at Ahmedabad.
The rest, as they say, is history. Once in the race and then the saddle to become India’s prime minister, corporate India had to bow. As many with others from sports and bollywood, repentance was sought by the Modi.1 regime after ensuring public obeisance to the man who made it, despite his controversial past, as India’s prime minister.