India Inc. has a new whistle-blower, and his name is Rahul Bajaj. In this age of corporate best practices, timely disclosures and transparency, a new breed of whistle-blowers has emerged to alert investors and regulators when companies play fast and loose with standards of governance. The chairman of Bajaj Auto Ltd, though, is a different kind of a whistle-blower. Bajaj is the living antithesis of discreet revelations: He has built a formidable reputation for candour and forthrightness, and his current outpourings are true to past form. By pointing out to home minister Amit Shah that an atmosphere of fear has stifled freedom to criticize the government, he articulated what businessmen have only dared say in private. The book World Class In India, written by the late management guru Sumantra Ghoshal and co-authored by Gita Piramal and Sudeep Budhiraja, describes Rahul Bajaj as “…an outspoken iconoclast who was regularly in the news not only as a spokesman for the Indian industry in general, but also for his often forward thinking and blunt views on a variety of social and economic issues that affected the country". This was evident even in November 1993, when he decided to go public with submissions of the Bombay Club—a group of eight prominent Indian industrialists, including Bajaj—to the finance minister of the time, Manmohan Singh, seeking for domestic industry a level playing field with foreign companies entering India.
There is another reason why Bajaj is different. He nominated himself as an industry spokesperson who must speak truth to power. Or, to paraphrase what he said in Hindi, he has sacrificed himself for the greater good. The “sacrifice", though, puts two issues in sharp relief. One, Bajaj’s peer group and industry colleagues are diminishing his sacrifice with their silence and refusal to support his cause. They do not need to form a chorus, but can at least follow up with suggestions to the government on what can be done to empower industry and improve the economy. Corporate India often cites examples of the freedom afforded to companies in the US, especially their flexible labour policies, but studiously ignores their ability to freely criticize the US government or president. Bill Gates has openly criticized Donald Trump, and so have many other business leaders, without causing a flutter. India Inc. should realize that keeping quiet further curdles an existing conspiracy of silence. It is all the more ironic because all this is happening at a time when India’s government is reaching out to industry for cooperation in ending the economic slowdown.
Unfortunately, some have failed to properly appreciate Bajaj’s observations, though Amit Shah was rather empathetic and restrained in his response. Party faithfuls and some ministers have jumped in to vilify the industrialist without realizing that this only reinforces his plaint. What this defensive word-cloud seems to highlight is a sense of victimhood. It’s important to create a relationship between the government and India Inc that is mutually beneficial. Always. To critique is not to criticize; to reach out is to participate. India Inc needs to understand this too. If so, it is time to recalibrate the relationship. India’s ruling party has a decisive electoral mandate, which should give its government the resolve to listen, consult and execute without fear or favour. But it’s a process that feeds on continuous feedback.