There is an element of irony in Rahul Bajaj’s emotion-laden outburst on Saturday that industrialists are inhibited from criticising the Narendra Modi government, in the way they did with the UPA-II government. The irony arises from the fact that Bajaj offered his ‘criticism’ openly at a public event — and directly addressed Union Home Minister Amit Shah, with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal on the dais. That’s as close as it can get to speaking truth to power, which in some ways dilutes the substance of his criticism.
It could, of course, be argued that Bajaj is a bit of an outspoken outlier among the suited-booted class. This isn’t even the first time he has criticised this government on its policies and — in a curious circular paradoxical fashion — on the claim that it doesn’t tolerate criticism. However, those with longer memories will also recall that industrialists’ criticism of governments may occasionally be motivated not in the interest of public good, but by a self-preservation instinct to protect their turf. Indicatively, when the Indian economy was thrown open to foreign competition in 1991, the so-called ‘Bombay Club’ — of which Bajaj was the unofficial spokesperson — was openly critical of reforms, and, in the reckoning of insiders, even worked actively to roll them back.
Even so, the reason why Bajaj’s half-truth rings true is because this government has proved exceedingly prickly to the thoroughly merited criticism of its handling of the economy and of its policy missteps in respect of specific sectors. As evidenced by the recent episode involving Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read — when he had to apologise to the government for publicly stating that the company’s India venture was in a perilous state and could see a shutdown — ministerial exertions seem focussed on ‘headline management’ rather than on fixing manifest policy failings. Such cussedness, in fact, makes for worse headlines and opens up the government to the charge that it is not open to criticism.
Venky Vembu Associate Editor