Veteran industrialist Rahul Bajaj has always been known to say as it is. His political linkages are also well-known. His father, the late businessman Jamanlal Bajaj was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Rahul has grown up seeing top Congress brass at close quarters from a very young age.
However, he was never formally associated with any political party. Nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the UPA, despite his gift of articulation, he failed to make any impact. Yet, by standing up last Saturday at a business awards function in Mumbai where Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goel were on stage, refurbished his image as an outspoken corporate leader.
Much of what he chose to say merited serious consideration by the Government. But a good part was plain political grandstanding which was better left out. In fact, his reference to loosely traded accusations between rival political parties concerning lynchings, Pragya Thakur, etc, were misplaced, for these detracted from the urgent concerns over economic slowdown.
His taunting of fellow businessmen present in strength at the function that they were afraid to speak about the economic situation was meant as much to pat his own back for having the courage to speak what he considered truth to power as it was to underline the ingrained habit of his tribe. It is not that the corporate leaders have become tongue-tied only under the Modi dispensation, they have always massaged ministerial egos in public regardless of their true feelings.
For instance, even a disastrous budget of P Chidambaram would be given eight or nine out of ten points by business owners while in private they would lament its negative impact on growth. So, the climate of fear Bajaj spoke about was rather exaggerated.
The fear among corporates could well stem from the fact that the present regime like none before it has undertaken a concerted campaign to clean up the system, to end double bookkeeping, to make borrowers of public funds to pay up or forfeit their business empires.
Can you believe, for example, the Ruias losing control of the Essar Steel or other companies in any other regime? Owning over Rs 80,000 crores to banks, they would have got a minister to evergreen their loans.
If this is the fear borrowers of public funds live under, it is to be celebrated. All through the socialist raj Indian business has exploited proximity to power for licenses, quotas, cheap land, tax concessions, cheap bank credit, etc, for private enprichment and public impoverishment.
Where are the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of Indian business? Cutting all manner of corners has all along been the key to wealth for corporates. Barring the new tech billionaires, can any industrialist put his hand on his heart and claim not to have benefitted from government largesse. So, it is time corporates did some introspection.
Yes, Rahul Bajaj’s cause would have been better served if he had listed the real cause of the economic slowdown and what, in his view, the authorities should do to boost growth. Instead he chose to harangue Shah who was too polite to rebuff the veteran businessman. Nobody is unconcerned about the fall in growth for the second successive quarter.
The problem is not that the Government is not taking steps to improve the business environment but whether it is taking the right steps. In our view the government is trapped in its Swadeshi claptrap. Take, for instance, the RSS edict against disinvestment of Air India and BPCL.
It should be told to do what it claims to do, that is, character-building, and leave the economic experts to figure out the best way to handle economic issues. Attaching nationalist pride to Air India or other such entities is ridiculous, to say the least.
Can anyone in RSS suggest how to stop Air India bleeding the public exchequer year after year? Concern for its employees should not override long term economic benefits from the sale of a white elephant.
Meanwhile, Without opening up further, without making it easy to buy land for new industries and businesses, without freeing labour markets, without reordering the financial sector architecture, a seven-plus per cent growth will be hard to achieve.
Global economy is under a protectionist grip. We cannot rely on it to boost growth. Exports don’t drive our economy, have never done. Manufacturing is in doldrums though it generates jobs and dispenses with the need for imports. Services too are slowing down in an adverse economic environment.
Farm sector suffers from decades of wrong-headed approach. Periodic loan write-offs are not a solution to farm distress. What is required is a total recast of fertiliser, power, water subsidies. Switch to cash subsidy for all farm inputs coupled with a free market for sale of farm produce. It can result in a very big positive change.
It is a pity that even the agriculture market reform, a state subject, has been half-hearted due to the stranglehold of vested interests. Where Modi has disappointed is that he has failed to be bold and courageous in the economic sphere, though he has been rather adventurous in the political sphere.
His ultra-cautious approach has not been conducive to growth. Meanwhile, he should speak to Rahul Bajaj, thanking him for his concern for the economy and seek doable suggestions to boost growth.
And ask his ministers, who are tweeting rudely against the veteran industrialist, not to be more loyal than the king. Amit Shah is competent to defend himself. Which he did immediately after Rahul finished his little lecture.