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Why BJP should be grateful to Rahul Bajaj

By A K Bhattacharya
December 20, 2019 12:01 IST
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'A close relationship between India Inc and the government cannot help the BJP win elections.'
'While Opposition parties may feel good about Mr Bajaj criticising the Modi regime, the BJP should be seeing the indictment as a political boon,' says A K Bhattacharya.

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Senior industry leader Rahul Bajaj has posed an important question for the Narendra Damodardas Modi government.

Why is industry afraid of speaking out on the government's economic policies?

Why is there an atmosphere of fear under the Modi regime so much so that industry leaders are reluctant to make critical comments about the government?

In comparison, the same industry was not afraid of asking questions about government policies when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister, Mr Bajaj has noted.

The Modi government has taken the observations made by Mr Bajaj quite seriously.

Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah has responded by saying there is no reason for industry to believe that there is an atmosphere of fear.

But since such comments have been made, the government would examine them to see what improvements can be brought about.

There have been other responses as well from senior Union ministers.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said it was always better to seek an answer to one's question and that approach was always better than spreading one's impressions, which could hurt national interest.

Railways and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal said there was no need to fear.

The fact that such a question could be raised showed that there was no atmosphere of fear, he said.

Housing, Urban Affairs and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri suggested that statements such as those made by Mr Bajaj were fake narratives.

It is important to examine the context and implications of what Mr Bajaj said in Mumbai recently in the presence of a galaxy of Indian industry leaders and senior ministers seated on the dais from where he spoke out his mind.

Note that the octogenarian industrialist prefaced his critical comments by saying that the Modi government was doing some good work.

But what hurt him was that industry leaders were not sure if their critical comments about the government would be appreciated and received in the right spirit.

This is a slightly different narrative from the general criticism of the manner in which the Modi government has handled the challenges faced by the Indian economy.

Mr Bajaj's comment was not on the way the Modi government was dealing with the challenges that have arisen out of the current slowdown.

He was a founder member of the Bombay Club that in the early 1990s had demanded a level playing field for domestic industry to help it face the challenges from the opening up of the Indian economy.

Today, Mr Bajaj could not have been uncomfortable with the Modi government raising tariffs or even pulling out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which would become the world's largest trading arrangement.

Thus, the criticism was not for the Modi government's economic policy stance, but for the manner in which it had shut itself off from any feedback from industry, which was now afraid to make any critical comments.

Biocon Chairperson and Managing Director Kiran Mazumdar Shaw endorsed Mr Bajaj's observations and hoped that the government would now reach out to India Inc to discuss how economic growth could be revived.

So far, industry leaders were all pariahs and the government did not want to hear any criticism of the economy, Ms Shaw said in a social media comment.

What Mr Bajaj, therefore, was actually pleading for was that the Modi government must revive the communication links between India Inc leaders and the ruling political establishment.

He seemed to be articulating the desire of India Inc leaders that the terms of engagement between industry and the Modi government must be reset.

Those terms had been reoriented early in the life of the first term of the Modi government.

Indian industry had hailed the Bharatiya Janata Party government because it believed that its leader, Narendra Damodardas Modi, would usher in more economic reforms.

True to such expectations, Mr Modi did try hard to amend the land acquisition law, but eventually gave up after recognising the growing political resistance to that idea.

In the remaining years of that government, Mr Modi did introduce many reforms like the launch of the Goods and Services Tax, real estate regulation and a legal framework for insolvency and bankruptcy resolution.

Even in its second term, the Modi government has taken a few bold measures like the cut in the corporation tax rates and a roll-out of an ambitious privatisation programme.

But it was becoming clear that the Modi government would not like to be seen to have come close to Indian industry.

To be seen as very close to India Inc seems to carry a political risk that can create hurdles in the BJP's way to acquire more political capital and gain electoral mileage.

In such a situation, Mr Bajaj's criticism that Indian industry leaders are afraid to criticise the government actually helps strengthen the BJP's political image of not being close to India Inc.

Even after returning to power after the general election of 2019 with a greater majority in the Lok Sabha, the BJP leadership continues to be obsessed with the idea of increasing its political capital and political footprint in the country.

That is largely because the BJP's performance in the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana was a setback.

It needs to bounce back with victories in the forthcoming round of assembly elections.

To be seen as a government that has no cosy relationship with Indian industry leaders, who as a result are afraid of speaking out against government policies, can politically help the BJP in the coming round of assembly elections.

Mr Bajaj's comments have only helped bolster that image.

The fact is that a close relationship between India Inc and the government cannot help the BJP win elections.

On the contrary, an India Inc that is comfortable with the BJP government and has a special or friendly relationship with it can have an adverse impact on the party's political fortunes.

While Opposition political parties may feel good about Mr Bajaj criticising the Modi regime, the BJP should actually be seeing the indictment as a political boon.

A K Bhattacharya is a senior columnist at Business Standard.
He is the author of The Rise Of Goliath: Twelve Disruptions That Changed India, a fascinating excerpt from which you can read here.

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