On Saturday, one of India’s most respected industrialists spoke about fear to power. Rahul Bajaj, at an awards function organised by The Economic Times in Mumbai, with ministers Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal on stage, spoke of corporates afraid to criticise government, of an environment of impunity for phenomena like lynchings, of terror-accused Pragya Thakur’s political journey to Parliament with the BJP’s full backing and support. A day earlier, from another public stage, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had talked about how the precarious state of the economy is linked to the state of the society in which it operates, how a “toxic combination of deep distrust, pervasive fear” is “stifling economic activity and hence economic growth”. Also on Friday, came news of the GDP growth rate for the second quarter of this financial year hitting a 26-quarter low. It is up to the Narendra Modi government now to join the dots — not to see another conspiracy in the three events, or to create another spectre to deflect and divert attention from them, but to acknowledge and respect their sobering message.
Even as they were strikingly similar in their burden, the difference of tone in the interventions of Bajaj and Singh was telling. Bajaj spoke with the self-conscious hesitancy and bravado of one breaking a taboo and a silence, rushing in where so many others visibly fear to tread. “Nobody from our industrialist friends will speak… I will say openly… we don’t have the confidence that you will appreciate if we criticise you openly…” The fact is that in the hall full of distinguished industrialists in which he spoke, Bajaj stood up alone. The fact also is that if his peers and other prominent industrialists had echoed Bajaj’s apprehensions in the last few years, articulated them publicly and to government, if they had, for instance, received news of the plunging GDP growth figures with a concern as audible as were their cheers for the government’s corporate tax cut, his intervention on Saturday would not seem quite so extraordinary, or as courageous. Former PM Singh, on the other hand, spelt out the current predicament with an understated authority. His message was devoid of drama, but his warning was grave. He spoke of economic development stalling because of the “profound fear and distrust among our various economic participants”, eroding public trust in independent institutions and of the “root cause of this” — “the government’s policy doctrine that seems to suspect every industrialist, banker, policymaker, regulator, entrepreneur and citizen… The Modi government seems to view everything and everyone through a tainted prism of suspicion… and it has positioned itself as some saviour, resorting to foolhardy moral policing…” The way out of the economic slump, the former PM cautioned, does not lie in more enlightened economic policy-making alone. It will need, also, the restoring of confidence and exuberance.
The government may, of course, dismiss Singh’s words as the lament of the loser. But the extent of the economic downturn has already indicated that the strategy of delinking the political-electoral from the economic could be reaching its limits. Another message is now writ on the wall: To revive the economy, the BJP will have to review its social and political ethos and philosophy. It may well be that nothing less will do.