Industrialist Rahul Bajaj‘s question to Home Minister Amit Shah about the environment of fear and suppression of freedom of speech under the Modi government has taken the internet by storm.
Bajaj, at the ‘Economic Times Awards’ function in Mumbai said that people had the freedom to critique the UPA government, but the current regime has created an “environment of fear and uncertainty.”
But this isn’t the first time that the industrialist, who is known for his frankness, has spoken up against a government or political party (be it BJP or Congress).
Rahul took over as the CEO of Bajaj Auto Ltd in 1968; at a time when the Congress government had created a tough environment for local businesses due to socialist policies which celebrated regulation and stifled entrepreneurship and incentive.
When his competitors were failing, he held his company afloat by taking risks and, in certain cases, defying the government.
Here are some instances which showcase Rahul Bajaj’s anti establishment streak:
During the NDA Regime
In July this year, speaking at his company’s 12th Annual General Meeting, Bajaj had criticised the government for falling demand as well as private investment.
“The government may or may not be saying this, but there are clearcut markings... which show a decrease in growth in the last three to four years,” Bajaj had told Bajaj Auto shareholders.
“Like any government, they would like to show a happy face, but the reality is a reality,” he had said, according to Moneycontrol.
Before that, in November 2018, the industrialist had lauded former RBI Governor Urjit Patel for staunchly defending the autonomy of the central bank, after reports that the government had used Section 7 of the RBI Act to direct RBI to undertake a list of measures “in public interest.”
Bajaj had, according to PTI, said that the government should not force its decisions on the Reserve Bank, especially Section 7 is never used. Each side will have to cede a bit as part of the reconciliation process, he had added.
Rahul Bajaj had also criticised demonetisation in July 2017 saying, “It is questionable if it (demonetisation) really worked. For two months, people had to stand in line, at ATMs, bank branches and small and medium enterprises suffered.”
In August 2015, Bajaj had spoken out against the government's new Black Money Act which had tough provisions for those who chose to utilise it.
The industrialist said, in an interview with NDTV, that though he had no sympathy for businessmen who broke the law, the overall philosophy of the law seemed to be of settling scores. "I think drafting has been done with a clear presumption... I have no sympathy for people who did that. So, this has been done with a vengeance," he had said.
Bajaj had added, "I am not anti this government. But the fact does remain, the shine seems to be wearing off."
During the UPA Regime
In 2014, Rahul Bajaj had taken a dig at the Congress-led UPA for its inability in bringing reforms, saying that India’s corporate sector suffered with entrepreneurs losing their ‘animal spirits’, according to Business Standard.
“I wish Mr Modi and his team well but with a warning: many believed that when the UPA-II government was formed in 2009... there would be a burst of much-needed reforms. That did not happen. The new NDA government must, therefore, ensure that this is not another false dawn,” he had advised the newly-formed Modi government.
The year before that, in 2013, Rahul Bajaj had hit out at the UPA government, blaming it for the slowdown in the economy, PTI reported. He had said that despite growing at over 9 percent for three successive years, the government failed to “create the necessary infrastructure and investments to maintain healthy growth in difficult times.”
“Instead of focusing on highways, power, rail, ports and IT networks that are critical for sustained growth, we steadily raised the nation’s fiscal deficit to finance consumption-based subsidies and handouts.”Rahul Bajaj
Back in August 2012 when there was a logjam in Parliament over the CAG report on allocation of coal blocks, Bajaj had expressed his dismay, calling the spat between the UPA government and the BJP which sat in Opposition, “fighting like school children”.
"I am very disappointed, very unhappy that they (the Congress Party and the BJP) are fighting like school children. Each is saying it is good for the nation. I don't see it being good for the nation...," Bajaj had said, according to the Economic Times.
1970s to 1990s: Defying the Congress
Though he says he was supportive of the idea of liberalisation, Rahul Bajaj was opposed to how the economic reforms were rolled out by the government in the 1990s,
Bajaj was reportedly a part of ‘The Bombay Club’ along with other Indian industrialists who sought to stall liberalisation attempts made by the PV Narasimha Rao government.
“When in 1993 I asked for a level playing field, what I only said was, we have a labour policy problem. I can’t get rid of people. We have a high rate of interest, high transaction costs, and I have to compete with imports which don’t have those limitations. And that got misconstrued as protectionism.”
In the 1970s, when Rahul had just taken over the reins of Bajaj Auto Limited, government regulation had capped its two wheeler output at 20,000 units a year, regardless of production capacity or consumer demand.
“We were in a socialist raj. You couldn’t make anything until you got an industrial license and you couldn’t make more than the license capacity,” he told the Harvard Business School.
Because Bajaj and his family were vocal critics of the Emergency and Indira Gandhi’s policies, the Industries Ministry had rejected the request for a major capacity expansion.
“I was told by some of the key men in the Ministry that permission would be granted if I came out in support of the Emergency,” he said in a 2007 interview.
He said that he had ignored the government regulation and increased his production volume “by more than the permitted 25 percent of my licensed capacity.”
“If I had to go to jail for the excess production of a commodity that most Indians needed, I didn't mind," Rahul Bajaj told the Harvard Business School, his alma mater, in an interview.
“If Mahatma Gandhi or my grandfather were alive during the Emergency, even they would have opposed it tooth and nail. The lives of my grandfather and father have taught me not be anybody’s chamcha.”Rahul Bajaj
(With inputs from The Economic Times, Moneycontrol, Business Standard, PTI and Harvard Business School)