File photo | Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto Ltd | Bloomberg
File photo | Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto Ltd | Bloomberg
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Lot of people don’t speak up out of fear, but the question, is fear of what?’ asked the industrialist Rajiv Bajaj in a recent conversation on India’s handling of the coronavirus crisis with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. This particular video clip was shared widely in private WhatsApp groups of India’s corporate honchos, with abundant praise for his candour. Ironically, they were lauding Bajaj’s exhortation to be fearless and to speak up, in private chat groups and not in public.

It is undeniable that an atmosphere of fear and dread has engulfed the elite of India over the past five years. The weaker sections of our society have never truly broken free from the clutches of the heavy state and have always been at its mercy. What has changed during the Narendra Modi government rule is that now, the privileged have also been forced into bonded living, unable to speak their minds. (Evident in how, for fear of being tapped, WhatsApp is their chosen medium for phone calls).

A poor woman in Samastipur village in Bihar was always coerced into obeying diktats of district officials for fear of being denied her share of government welfare. Now, a rich industrialist in Mumbai is also being forced into singing praises of the government and demonstrating proof of obedience by banging utensils and photographing it, for fear of being probed or denied a government order. The rich Mumbai industrialist is now on a ‘level playing field’ with the poor lady in Samastipur. At least when it comes to personal freedoms, the wide inequality between the rich and the poor has been bridged successfully by the Modi government, not by making the poor richer, but by making the rich poorer.


Also read: Lockdown flattened the wrong curve — GDP instead of Covid: Rajiv Bajaj tells Rahul Gandhi


A heavy price

It is no secret that every industrialist grumbles and sulks in private while being pretentiously cheerful in public over the draconian lockdown measures of the Modi government, which have devastated their businesses. It is puzzling that these business people, known for their obsessive self-interests and reputed for rational decision-making in a ‘costs versus benefits’ framework, are bearing the brunt of Prime Minister Modi’s decision and yet choosing to remain diffident and silent. Surely, it cannot be the case that the costs of speaking up exceed the costs of a total shutdown of their businesses?

Let us suppose that in March, after Modi imposed a sudden and extreme lockdown in India to tackle Covid-19, industry associations or a group of industrialists had mustered the courage to tell the PM, either in private or in public, that an extreme lockdown in a country like ours will yield no health benefits and only saddle us with enormous human and economic costs. Or after Lockdown 1.0, they could have voiced their opinion that extending the lockdown is foolhardy.

Under the minuscule chance that Modi would have taken their concerns seriously and reversed his lockdown policy, their businesses would have fared much better than the current state they find themselves in. A complete shutdown for nearly three months is an enormously expensive proposition for most businesses. Speaking up to prevent a total shutdown would seem like a chance worth taking for these industrialists who are so attuned to making decisions in a ‘rational expectations’ paradigm, yet they did not. As Bajaj asked, what exactly is it that they fear?

By choosing to remain silent, India’s industrialists have signalled that their cost of speaking up in the form of tax harassment, denial of government permissions, unlocking of skeletons in their closet, etc., are even greater than the costs of shutting down their businesses entirely for three full months. In which case, one can only impute that perhaps a large collection of skeletons adorn the cupboards of the honchos of India Inc.


Also read: India’s corporate earnings scorecard shows worst profit slump since 2014


Guns, germs and steel

The costs of not speaking truth to power are very high for any society. Let us not forget that potentially, the entire planet could have been saved from the devastation of the coronavirus had more people joined Dr Li Wenliang and spoken out. Li Wenliang was the sole brave doctor in Wuhan in China who had warned others of the novel coronavirus in December 2019. His voice was muzzled by the Chinese government and the others in his medical fraternity did not join him in speaking up. The whole world is paying a humungous price for the suppression of Wenliang’s freedom and the cowardice of his fellow doctors.

India today faces a ‘guns, germs and steel crisis’, to borrow from the title of Jared Diamond’s classic tome on the evolution of societies and nations. We have Chinese guns at our border, the threat of virus ‘germs’ in our bodies and the risk of industries in bankruptcy. It is arguably the gravest confluence of a health, economic, humanitarian and military crises in independent India’s history.

No one leader can steer the nation through this calamity on his own, however supreme he may be. It needs the wisdom of many. From the disastrous decision to demonetise the nation’s currency overnight to imposing a reckless lockdown in four hours, India has paid dearly for rash decisions taken by PM Modi at critical junctures. The reluctance of the nation’s privileged, who are equally affected by these impetuous decisions, to speak up, has cost the country immensely. The price of such continued silence by the elite in such times can be catastrophic, both for their narrow self-interests and for the nation at large. As Martin Luther King said, there comes a time when silence is betrayal.

The author a political economist, senior office bearer of the Congress party & an ex ‘corporate honcho’. Views are personal.

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20 Comments Share Your Views

20 COMMENTS

  1. In a democracy , people should exercise their rights of expression freely. However, those who have to run the show, have to take responsibility for the choices of their action.
    An industrialist , with his or his major stakeholders interests in mind & his organisations capacity to function normally under CoVid-19 pandemic will very well oppose lockdown decision.
    An elected democratic govt is responsible towards 135 crore citizens. The govt has to work with all the constraints of medical infrastructure, work ethos , public awareness &indiscipline in tackling a pandemic with limited knowlege. In an environment of fuzziness , over caution is called for.For CoVID-19, till date there is no treatment. For an air borne communicable infection ,distancing and precautions are the only viable control measures.
    It may not delight fellow citizens that despite all kinds of awareness campaigns of last 3 months, many people still refrain from following public / personal safety Covid-19 protocols. For such gentry , forced lockdown is perhaps the only viable means to control the pandemic spread.

  2. Praveen Chakravarty is correct. The lockdown sure did flatten a curve – but the wrong curve. Rajiv Bajaj needs to be admired for his candor. That is now. The economy started its long dive down two years ago. The new BS norms for the auto sector started it, the new draconian MV act, GST with its back breaking rates, tax terrorism, govt’s. greed for funds followed in quick succession. All this led to the dive. And why.? Because Modi selected the wrong ministers, We need professionals who have an understanding of the subjects and not loyalists or favourites or who were Mohan Bhagwat’s choice. They criticised retrospective taxation but after coming to power did they address the issue. No. To criticise something when out of power but do the same thing when you come to power sends just the wrong message. It is that you cannot keep your word.

    Probably only Amit Shah is a correct choice. All the others are misfits. Govt. spending on grandiose and superfluous projects needs to stop. Municipal administrations are major causes for fund squandering. Making, breaking and remaking is the norm. The result is crores down the drain and the irony is that there is’nt even a sewage treatment plant to recycle the waste. It goes straight into the sea! Raising funds is only half the story. Spending it judiciously is the other more important half. BJP has screwed up there. I live in Mangaluru. A couple of months ago MUDA revised its processing fees upwards – went up TEN TIMES. Can you beat that. And ‘file charges’ as they call it remains. If this is not corruption, what is?

    Sometimes it becomes necessary to listen to the guys who criticise, not always. It would be good to use ones discretion and heed the important ones.

  3. When the same companies were milking money from last 6 years then they were happy, but since they know that they can live inside their houses without any chance of infection, they want India Inc to work so that all labours get infected and die and then they will again blame govt whether any. If they feel so bad, they should have paid their labours the salary so that nobody would have left for home and business would have started soon lockdown rules became normal, but oh ho that cannot happen, they will just earn but not pay.

  4. Mr Bajaj now you have only to wait for raids on your Indl& financial establishmant by Thug chokidar chor Pradhan sevak & thug chokidar mahachor Tadipar HM’s pet dogs CBI,ED,ANTI CORR,FERA,FEMA name which ever preventive agencies of India for speaking truth.

  5. I am yet to hear an industrialist, media person, businessman who says “India is my country. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to my best under the give circumstances. Here is my plan…..” etc. etc.

    The whole Nation (.except some self help groups, philanthropists, Gurudwaras,,..etc. etc..) including a large section of the media, is only cribbing.
    I wonder how many realise that along with freedom and democracy there is also an element of responsibility to be exercised by every citizen – from the worker to the Chairman….
    Why don’t we discuss what can be done instead of what can’t be done?

  6. There is a story.
    A tea seller in India will have the “knowledge” and audacity to tell Sachin Tendulkar, how to handle Brett Lee on a bouncy Perth Pitch But alas! He will never endeavor to make good tea.

  7. A humble thought.
    Economists can be endured…But political economists are a danger to the Nation and the Society.
    An efficient professional should be one who can express views on socio-economic matters without the politics. Believe me, it can be done. For this one has to have two qualities 1. Understand the economy well. 2. Any language in which views are expressed. With just preconceived ideas on politics, honest and truthful views on matters can never be expressed.

    Tail piece: Also, truth will be in direct proportion on the intentions. You can’t talk the truth on economics if your intention is politics!!!

  8. What else can you expect from member of Congress party. He wants to please his masters and get noticed.

    Bahul to Rahul wish had happened earlier at lockdown 1.0
    Why Bajaj did not speak up with courage earlier, is he not having anyone to support him. How ironic that all sane voices have died and Rahul Bajaj is the most intelligent.

    I wish Print raises above these peddlers of non sense and come out with concrete solutions for future from people who matter

  9. Hi,

    The article does not provide any alternative way of handling the crisis. When you are not the decision maker, you can always question the decision taken by others. This behaviour is ingrained in us.

    What were the alternatives other than lock down which would have limited the loss of lives, loss of livelihood and spread of the disease?
    If Mr.Modi was not in power, if Congress or any other party was running the government, what else could they have done differently ?

    Recently the epidemiologist of Sweden regretted the decision of not going for lock down. When almost every other country in the world followed lock down, why not us?

    Regards
    Sharath K

  10. Admire Rajiv Bajaj for speaking frankly. Everything need be seen as pro or anti Government. Even in a family we have to speak frankly. Moreover, he has used very acceptable language which most people do not sue when criticizing something.

  11. Would you have preferred to continue life as normal and taken a huge risk of dying and exposing millions others to that risk?

    Really?

    You and your ilk who are now criticizing the lockdown, would have been the first ones to blame the Govt if there was no lockdown.

  12. I have been advocating an all party “National Govt” ever since the lock down began. If Modi cannot work with other parties, the RSS must replace him with someone like Gadkari. The Congress and other parties have more experienced hands at managing the economy. We have seen so far that Madam Nirmala does not seem capable of delivering the goods. People’s confidence in Modi sarkar’s ability to pilot the economy in these troubled waters has been severely shaken. The health ministry has also performed below par because of excessive centralisation of power in the PMO. The nation and its economy must be saved and if the RSS is truly a patriotic organisation, it must be ready to sacrifice for the nation’s cause.

  13. I don’t disagree with the premise that the current lockdown was not the right way to go about but blaming the government for taking such a drastic step of locking down the country is also not right. This situation was an unprecedented one, were no one knew what you were getting into. Lockdown was a logical step in order to avoid the spread of virus, although now that we look back we can say that this was not the right way to go about it. You can’t blame the goverment for taking such drastic steps in order to avoid excessive spread of this virus, again i will repeat to AVOID. This was a risk but a necessary one. What we should look forward now, is to see if the government has learned anything from this mistake and what are they going to do to rectify it. There is no denying that there is an atmosphere of fear among corporates. We need more and more corporates coming forward and stating their views. The government should be working for the people not the other way round.

  14. Would you care to elaborate then what must have been done rather than what happened? Because from the perspective of a keen observer, stringent lockdown measures were extremely important because it reduced the infections rate from what could have been 10 folds right now. What else could have been done instead of what the government did to contain the measures. For a change keep the interests of common man as well instead of elitists in your op ed next time.

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