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Amit Shah’s reply to Rahul Bajaj was pitch perfect, but there’s enough to show that govt doesn’t like criticism

The Financial Express
Amit Shah, Rahul Bajaj, Amit Shah, BJP, UPA, Indian industrialists, Model Code of Conduct, Modi government, Supreme Court

Given that even Rahul Bajaj's son Rajiv-he's the managing director of Bajaj Auto-disagreed with what his father said to home minister Amit Shah, it is not surprising that opinion is divided on Bajaj senior's intervention. While Rahul Bajaj had talked of how most industrialists were scared to criticize the BJP-he added that most felt free to openly criticize UPA ministers when they were in power-his son said that he had read somewhere that courage is knowing that it may hurt and doing it anyway and stupidity is the same (emphasis added).

While it is difficult to reply to such sweeping and multi-layered criticism-was Bajaj upset with the NDA's social policies or the economic ones, or both?-the home minister did an admirable job. So, Shah said, that lynching was not a new thing but just didn't get the kind of publicity it is getting now and, given that no government had been criticized as much as the BJP had been, no one had any reason to worry about criticizing the BJP; indeed, he added, the fact that Bajaj was saying what he was, and getting applauded for it, was proof of this! But, and this is important, Shah added that, if despite all of this, there was still a view that people were scared to tell the truth to the BJP, this is something the government would have to work to dispel.

Even those who didn't find Shah's answer convincing would agree, though, that Bajaj was guilty of fairly wild exaggeration. For one, given Indian industrialists' penchant for giving even the most ordinary Budget 12 marks out of 10, it is difficult to believe that industrialists openly abused UPA ministers. No top industrialists came out in the open, for instance, when the UPA indulged in blatant corruption/favouritism of the type A Raja did in telecom or when, Pranab Mukherjee decided to overrule a Supreme Court judgment on Vodafone's tax liability and came up with his retrospective taxation; this dealt a body blow to India's reputation for being fair, but no one criticized it openly.

And while some like Ratan Tata and Anu Aga came out against Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the Godhra violence, it is difficult to recall senior industrialists coming out against top Congress leaders accused of being part of the anti-Sikh pogrom being given plum postings as ministers. If Indian industrialists are silent now, they were pretty silent earlier as well. If lynching took place earlier as well, why are people attacking the BJP for it now? And is the BJP really intolerant of criticism, and does that mean the Congress welcomed criticism ...

While the media spinning stories like lynching in an anti-BJP way, or highlighting every fringe MP from the BJP's stable, is certainly an explanation-though with Republic TV and Times Now doing as well as they are, Modi is hardly dealing with an entirely hostile media!-a large part of the reason has to do with how the BJP deals with its critics.

Some recent instances should make this clear. Just before the general elections, when there was a lot of talk of jobless growth, the government suppressed the NSS report on the jobs' situation. It is true this report was not comparable with the earlier NSS ones since it employed a different methodology, but instead of releasing the report and stressing this difference, the government simply refused to release the report. Frankly, if jobs were growing the way the government was trying to convince everyone they were, why is the economy slowing so dramatically today?

When, more recently, the NSS report showed falling real consumption, the BJP government buried the report again! Every serious analyst knows the shortcomings in the NSS data, in that it captures less and less of consumption than in the past, but even if the report was biased, it was pointing to something, wasn't it? So why try to hide some data?

Or take the case of Ashok Lavasa, the Election Commissioner who wanted the EC to write to Modi asking for his cooperation in upholding the Model Code of Conduct and who disagreed with the EC's clean chit to Modi asking for votes in the name of the Pulwama martyrs. Since Lavasa served under the BJP for three years, as environment and finance secretary, you'd think he had been vetted and his work found good-why else did the BJP appoint him an EC after he retired? Yet, his family is under the taxman's scanner and all PSUs are being asked about whether his wife was appointed to their boards as an independent director because of Lavasa's pressure.

And then there's Aatish Taseer, the once pro-Modi writer who earned the PM's ire with his divider-in-chief piece for Time magazine just before the elections. Did the government really want to be seen as punishing a critic, especially one who many thought was pretty over-the-top anyway? More so since, after the furore, Time published a uniter-in-chief piece after that. Yet, the government revoked Taseer's Overseas Citizen of India card, and 260 top writers including Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk came out supporting him. Possibly, Taseer lied on his original OCI form several years ago (https://bit.ly/2Y6pmQB) but why not ignore him?

It is true that the same Lavasa, or his colleagues in the EC-most of civil society, actually-didn't think it was worth censuring Rahul Gandhi for his repeating, without an iota of proof, that Modi had given Anil Ambani's firm Rs 30,000 crore of Rafale orders; indeed, in the run-up to the elections, Gandhi also told tribals that the crux of one of Modi's proposed bills was "shoot Adivasis with impunity" when the reality was a lot more complex.

But in acting against its critics-or justifying its actions by citing what the Congress did-the Modi government is just hurting its own prospects. Indeed, its demonizing JNU as a haven for anti-India elements in the past ensured that even when JNU students were in the wrong-they were paying 0.5% of what Delhi University students pay for their hostel!-a couple of weeks ago, the public sympathy was with the students. What was a long-overdue fee hike became the case of a right-wing government trying to crush left liberal students!

Postscript: Cricketing legend Sunil Gavaskar was known as much for the strokes he played as the balls he left. Well-left is something the Modi government would do well to emulate.