Democracy is a fragile institution, especially in a flawed democracy like ours. Two of democracy’s main pillars — a freely elected government, and an independent judiciary — must play their role to keep it going. Of equal importance is the freedom of expression and thought. There must be people who speak out fearlessly against injustice and misgovernance. And there must be outlets where those expressions can be widely seen and heard, as on TV, in the Press, and on social media.
This need is greater when the political party in power has won with a big majority and the other parties cannot form a strong and effective Opposition, as is the case in India today. With a big majority usually comes arrogance and an attitude that the government can do no wrong. This can take the form of what is called “majoritarianism”. If you disagree with the majority, you are “anti-national”.
Business houses, in particular, have to tread carefully. Should they criticise the government policies, they risk action against them, which can take many forms and jeopardise their working, or affect their bottom line. Which is why Indian business houses, by and large, rarely say anything against the government. They know they are vulnerable. Though liberalisation of the Indian economy has dismantled much of the stifling “licence-permit-raj”, the authorities still have ways and means to hurt defiant entrepreneurs.
Which is why Rahul Bajaj must be applauded. He heads one of the most respected and progressive business houses in the nation. At a recent awards ceremony hosted by a leading financial daily, with many of the doyens of the Indian industry present, he confronted the two main guests of honour, Home Minister Amit Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, arguably the two most important ministers after the Prime Minister himself. Bajaj showed the courage and gumption to express what a lot of people have been saying in private but lack guts to say in public at a major forum.
Bajaj made two main points. One, that an atmosphere of fear had pervaded the country. People were afraid to criticise the government and did not have the confidence that the government would appreciate the criticism. There was “intolerance ki hawa”. Hence, tax raids, and the like. Then, the lynchings, without any convictions. What he did not say but was clear is that the lynchings were predominantly of Muslims and lower castes. Bajaj also brought up Pragya Singh Thakur’s description of Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, as a “true patriot”. Rahul Bajaj had spoken out similarly in 1993, voicing his “concerns” over the moves to liberalise the Indian economy. The then Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, had taken what Bajaj said seriously and tried to reassure him. This time, it is not “concern” that Bajaj is expressing, but “fear”. And there is a big difference between the two words.
Amit Shah responded by saying that Pragya Thakur had “apologised” and the BJP had removed her from an important committee. What he did not mention is that she is still under investigation over a case of “Hindu terror” in Malegaon. Should a suspect in a murder case have been given a Parliamentary ticket in the first place? As for the lynchings, they have been taking place largely because the culprits feel they can get away with murder, which, more often than not, is the case. Bajaj’s comments on Pragya Singh Thakur and lynchings are shared by many concerned citizens.
However, what is bothersome is the response to Bajaj’s candid and bold comments. Indeed, the BJP’s angry reactions prove his point that the government does not welcome any criticism. Nirmala Sitharaman, who is presiding over an economy with the lowest GDP growth (4.5 percent) in the last six years, said Bajaj could have hurt “national interests”. In other words, he was being “anti-national”, or “unpatriotic”. Who, one may ask, is Sitharaman to decide what is or is not in “national interest”? For Bajaj, constructive criticism is in “national interest”, as it is for many others, but clearly not for Sitharaman.
Hardip Singh Puri, the Cabinet Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, also jumped down Bajaj’s throat, saying that he (Bajaj) had woven a “false narrative”. How, he did not clarify. Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s IT cell, took a different tack. Rahul Bajaj, he claimed, was “beholden to the Congress” for his success in business. Malviya was entirely wrong. In fact, in 1969, Bajaj’s father, Kamal Nayan Bajaj, refused to support Indira Gandhi when she split the Congress party. Indira Gandhi, who could be just as vindictive as the present powers-that-be, made sure that the government permission was not given to Bajaj’s company to expand its manufacturing facilities. Narasimha Rao, the BJP’s national spokesperson, descended to a ludicrously petty level by equating Rahul Bajaj to a “frustrated journalist in Lutyen’s Delhi”, while implying that he was angling for a Rajya Sabha seat. Doesn’t the BJP have any senior politicians who appreciate criticism and can learn from it?
Dissent is an integral part of democracy; it is not “anti-national”. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The writer is a veteran journalist
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