From having spent more than half my life under the Licence Raj I learned two lessons. The first that officials were incapable of being successful businessmen. And the second that India would remain a poor country as long as we continued to exalt poverty as a virtue and disdain prosperity as a sin. Those who did not grow up in that bleak time cannot imagine what it was like. I lived in the vicinity of Khan Market in those days before it was reincarnated as Delhi’s most fashionable bazaar. So I remember it as a grim place where we queued every day outside shoddy, socialist shops for some ordinary item of daily use.
I remember queueing for gas cylinders after first having kowtowed to an MP for a licence to own a gas cylinder. I remember queueing for milk at dreary Mother Dairy stalls. In festival seasons, I remember rising extra early to queue for sugar and milk and the other ingredients that went into making sweets. Telephones and cars were considered evil luxury goods that only dissolute rich people could possibly need, so the queues for these things could last years.
Air-conditioners were considered the ultimate depravity and were so expensive that only very rich Indians could afford to buy new ones. The rest of us queued in Khan Market outside the shop of a Sikh electrician who made a fortune out of making ‘jugaad’ air-conditioners. Anyone who tells you that those were endless seasons of ‘achhe din’ is a liar or a socialist. But, we were happy wallowing in our genteel poverty because we accepted that there would always be poor people and we were lucky to not be so poor as to be homeless and hungry.
My main reason for supporting Narendra Modi was because he was the first politician I heard glorifying prosperity. The first I heard saying in so many words that it was not the business of government to be in business. Then came that ‘suit-boot’ taunt and he lost his nerve and began talking just like Congress prime ministers of yore. So I was delighted last week to hear him say that not all businessmen were crooks and that they have an important role to play in taking India forward.
Actually, in more ways than one they have a more important role to play than most because it is they who create wealth and jobs. It is unfortunate that because of a few bad eggs Modi has spent most of his tenure distancing himself from businessmen and banging on about black money. I have said it before in this column but it cannot be repeated enough that the only Indians with real black money are politicians and corrupt officials.
It is black money that oils our electoral system. So come election time the agents of political parties wander about Mumbai ordering businessmen to pay up or else. This is the point when white money becomes black. So if the Prime Minister had spent more time cleaning up electoral funding, black money may well have come down by half.
Instead, some of the most corrupt officials in the Government of India have been given enhanced powers to conduct tax raids and that same ugly Licence Raj atmosphere has begun to prevail. In recent weeks I have heard of tax raids in which there has been open extortion and in which upright citizens have been publicly humiliated. Tax raids are a leftover from those bad old days, except officials now have more powers to search and seize. So their intimidation tactics are more brazen than ever before. A kind of menace hangs in the air that is reminiscent of that Licence Raj when anyone who dared to try and create wealth was punished.
It is true that there are bad eggs in the private sector like Nirav Modi and his uncle who have shown themselves to be bank robbers rather than businessmen. But, what worries me is that although they have been universally reviled for what they did we still do not know enough about the bank officials who helped them get away with their heist. These were public sector banks and we have a right to know exactly who they were and if they have been arrested yet or not. Just as we do not close down the public sector despite companies like Air India that are bottomless pits, we should not treat the private sector as if it were a den of thieves just because of a few bad eggs.
Now that the Prime Minister has rediscovered that not all businessmen are crooks, we must hope that he will do his best to make it easier for Indian businessmen to do business honestly. At the very least the hounds unleashed in this unending quest for black money should be reined in.