In the UPA-2 government’s last phase, industrialist Azim Premji made an observation that came to mark an inflection point in the political atmosphere. He brought the charge of “policy paralysis” against the government. This virtually became a battle cry.
Criticising the government has been par for the course in India. Each period brought its own slogans. There was never any fear of those holding power going for their critics (except in the Emergency era). That was rightly assumed to be the country's default political culture, flowing from our liberal, democratic Constitution, which values free speech.
Under the present government, however, the perception is that the luxury of criticising comes at a price. Since the government has shown no disinclination to use its agencies — CBI, Enforcement Directorate, income-tax department — against its political opponents, senior figures in industry and business have so far preferred to keep their thoughts to themselves.
The case of Congress leaders P. Chidambaram and D.K. Shivakumar too have served as a warning. “Tax terrorism” began to be faintly heard when a top entrepreneur in South India ended his life, fearing harassment by the state, but the critics spoke in measured tones and soon there was a hush.
Given this background, it must have taken some doing on the part of Rahul Bajaj, from a storied industrialist family, to speak truth to power at an event in Mumbai lon Saturday, with Union home minister Amit Shah in the audience.
Mr Bajaj spoke relatively freely. He said industrialists were afraid to be critical of the government for fear of consequences. He didn’t limit his remarks to the economy and business. He spoke of lynching episodes that went unpunished, creating a sense of “intolerance”. He brought up Bhopal MP Pragya Thakur’s recent description in Parliament of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin as a patriot.
Replying to these remarks, Mr Shah proclaimed there was no cause to be afraid, and said all criticisms will be viewed on merit. The whole thing was so public that Mr Bajaj may have nothing to worry about. However, he will do well to wait before he assesses his situation. But there is no gainsaying that he broke the mould.
Where did the industrialist draw his courage from? Did he find his freedom because the sorry state of the economy is now being discussed in every home and in every newspaper and television studio? Or because, in spite of the presumably magical powers of the Modi-Shah combine, the BJP has fared below par in recent state elections in Haryana and Maharashtra, losing its government in the latter state? This is possible.
On the economic side, there were prominent critics before Mr Bajaj — like the government’s chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian and former Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya, both well-known economists who resigned and went back to the United States. The former spoke of demonetisation and GST mishandling. But Mr Bajaj has been broader in his sweep. The international media too are now speaking of the BJP government delivering poor economics and majoritarian politics.