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'India needs businessmen in Parliament'

By Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan
Last updated on: April 14, 2019 12:58 IST
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'When you come through the hassles and struggles of business life, your mind is wired differently.'
'You are more connected to reality,' Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral tells Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan.

From left, Wipro's Azim Premji, Reliance Industries Limited's Mukesh Ambani, and the Aditya Birla Group's Kumar Mangalam Birla. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

IMAGE: From left, Wipro's Azim Premji, Reliance Industries Limited's Mukesh Ambani, and the Aditya Birla Group's Kumar Mangalam Birla. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

It is a truth widely acknowledged that economic illiteracy and obscurantism have long been helpful qualifications for an Indian politician.

Circa 2016-2019, the country has also become a hyperkinetic laboratory for eccentric experiments: Shock therapy to leapfrog to a 'cashless economy' one moment, a basic income for the bottom 20 per cent of the population with little detail on subsidies to be cut the next.

As someone who built a successful garment exporting business and is a chartered accountant by training, Naresh Gujral is cut from a different cloth.

His conversation is peppered with facts and figures. He makes no implausible claims about India overtaking China, but worries instead about the comparative advantage India once enjoyed in garments being forfeited to Bangladesh.


Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

When we meet for lunch at his home, he describes the data reported that morning showing millions of casual labour jobs have been lost by men in the countryside over the past couple of years as "frightening".

The Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament for the Shiromani Akali Dal launches straight into a detailed discussion on how Punjab's farmers could learn from the high-margin horticulture of Sikkim.

The secret is a focus on organic produce, which allows farmers in Sikkim to make as much as "Rs 85,000 an acre", he says.

An ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, he praises it and his party's minister for boosting the food processing industry, but believes there is a long way to go.

"Ninety thousand crores of fruits and vegetables perish post-harvest," Gujral says. "The time has come to allow foreign direct investors into retail. They will create the supply chain and the cold chains."

In a leap that is breathtaking, he envisions a world where Punjab's fruit and vegetables could be trucked to the former Soviet republics if and when relations with Pakistan normalise.

Photograph: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

Photograph: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

Gujral bemoans that successive governments have not followed the M S Swaminathan report's suggestions that would give the farmer a remunerative price for his produce because they seek to keep food inflation down.

"We remember the farmer only at election time. Something permanent needs to be done otherwise we are headed for an agrarian revolution."

He then quotes Rudyard Kipling to make an analogy between India's farmers and the soldier in peace time: "In times of war and not before, God and the soldier we adore. But in times of peace and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted."

The phone rings; it is his daughter Diva, calling before boarding a flight to Delhi. We are sitting in a library jammed with books about art -- he has been an art collector for decades -- but also Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India.

Gujral is alone that day, but his family make cameo appearances. The phone conversation with Diva, a PhD student in art history in London, involves a lengthy anecdote that alarms Gujral: "My God... Then?... Oh my God... Good you managed to get out."

He hangs up and then goes to the bookcase to fetch an engaging book on photography in India dating back to the 19th century that Diva co-authored.

His wife Anjali, one of the most graceful women in Delhi, is on a week-long river rafting trip that started near the Nepal border. He shows us a video clip she has sent him that involves hoots of horror and delight as the rafts move towards the rapids.

Gujral loses the thread of his narrative momentarily and embarrassingly so do we.

Farmer distress is not just about the price of their crops and the financial risk they take on, Gujral continues, but also brought on by indebtedness due to a lack of medical insurance and the high cost of weddings.

He expects Modi's health plan to address the first problem, but regards splashy weddings as a social evil encouraged by Page 3 gossip sections, our tycoons and India's celebrity culture.

"We are glamorising weddings that have become prohibitively expensive. It is affecting our gender ratio and levels of indebtedness. Like Swachh Bharat, we need a mission (to push for simple weddings)."

Gujral believes politicians, starting from the prime minister, must campaign against this unaffordable extravagance.

His father, former United Front prime minister I K Gujral, who died in 2012, is mentioned often. Only 40 people attended his own wedding, he recalls, but his father later held a reception where everyone from the President of India to a peon who had worked for him was invited.

They were served "tea and coffee, cola, barfi, elaichi and saunf. The bill came to Rs 3,000."

This is so much a tale from a bygone era that it is hard to suppress a gasp.

When one of his two daughters was married last year, Gujral, 70, notes with approval she insisted her parents invite only people she and her husband knew personally.

We make our way to the dining table while Gujral stops to cheer up the family's golden retriever, Kaiser, who looks as large as a lion but is depressed because of Anjali Gujral's absence.

As we sit down to a meal of kadhi and rice, aloo methi, bhindi and chicken curry, Gujral shifts to a pet subject: Ensuring our labour intensive industries have a chance to compete.

Gujral wants the dumping of under-invoiced imports from China that he says encourage hawala transactions stopped by a quick imposition of tariff and non-tariff barriers: "The Chinese have killed our toy industry, they have killed our kolhapuri chappals manufacturing."

He wants state governments to create incentives based on the jobs new enterprises create, not just on the capital they invest.

As Bangladesh gets well ahead of India in garment exports, India's absurdly inflexible labour laws need to be urgently revamped.

"Foreign investors want normal labour laws that are prevalent in other countries. No one enjoys sacking people, but if your business conditions are such, you have to let people go."

Unusually, Gujral is unafraid to speak up for foreign investors -- and for communal harmony. Reiterating a comment he made after a rash of attacks on minorities and Dalits, which likely angered many in the BJP, he adds emphatically, "FDI does not come to countries where there is no communal harmony on the streets."

This plain speaking has made him popular with members outside the ruling coalition. Chandrababu Naidu is a long-time friend and even the Trinamool reportedly supported him to be deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha last summer.

He chose not to contest in the end because he felt the role would not suit him and because he wanted broad, bipartisan support. In the end, the BJP wanted another candidate.

"Mein moonhphat hoon (I say it straight)," Gujral chuckles.

The only exception through our three-hour conversation is when he rationalises the defeat of the Akali Dal in the elections in Punjab in 2017.

"We were done in by false propaganda about drugs. Can a chief minister curtail demand? The margins of profit are so high that the world over the police gets bribed. Any drug corridor sees a higher incidence of drug usage."

We don't raise widespread allegations of collusion and corruption in the Akali government because Gujral, in party spokesman mode, is less interesting.

He is soon reminiscing about his father telling him that in politics he must "make friends, not enemies", which sounds a world away from today's nasty name-calling.

He transports us back to the family dining table of his youth that had more Opposition politicians than people from the Congress, which his father was then a minister of.

He remains hopeful that a private members' bill he introduced will be passed to ensure Parliament works 100 days a year and makes up for time wasted in shouting matches.

It is now 4.30 pm. Kaiser is bored by our long farewell in the garden, fuelled by permutations of electoral arithmetic, that has extended our meeting by 45 minutes, and wants to go back indoors.

Gujral has one last point to make: More business people need to be nominated to Parliament. "When you come through the hassles and struggles of business life, your mind is wired differently. You are more connected to reality."

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Rahul Jacob and Archis Mohan
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