Amit Malviya, who heads Bharatiya Janata Party’s information and technology cell, is on the offensive. After industrialist Rahul Bajaj called out the government for being intolerant of dissent and creating an atmosphere of fear, the IT cell chief put out a series of tweets accusing him of being a Congress plant.
Malviya dug out old clips from television interviews of Bajaj, suggesting that he had thrived under the Congress’s “license raj” and inviting him to “wear your political affiliation on your sleeve” and not “hide behind inanities”. He also cited an Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) case study to suggest that Bajaj had used ministerial contacts to manipulate Scooters India Limited into a deal that was allegedly not transparent.
The deal referred to was an attempt by the government to sell Scooters India Limited, an ailing public sector unit. The negotiations took place in 1987 and the deal fell through. Incidentally, the government is still trying to sell the loss-making unit. As an instance of sinister complicity between a political party and big business, it fails to convince.
But the problem lies deeper, in the BJP’s determined denial of something rotten in the current polity, its insistence that all criticism must stem from vested interests.
What Bajaj said
Bajaj’s comments were directed at Union Home Minister Amit Shah at an awards event organised by the Economic Times on Saturday. He said: “You are doing good work, but if we want to openly criticise you, there is no confidence you will appreciate that.” He noted that many in the gathering shared his views but were afraid of speaking up in public.
Shah parried the comments by saying there was no fear at all, although the government would make an effort to “improve the atmosphere”. Other functionaries of the government soon joined the choir of defensive comments, airing worries about the “national interest” and the spread of “fake narratives”.
A larger problem
The BJP’s response to Bajaj is proof of the party’s inability to handle dissent. This has been borne out by numerous instances in the recent past, from sedition cases against public figures who wrote to the prime minister expressing concern about lynchings to the arrests of rights activists under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to the withdrawal of overseas Indian citizenship for author Aatish Taseer, who wrote a scathing article about the Modi government.
Never mind social and political issues, even those who dare to flag concerns about a flailing economy face ad hominem attacks. Nobel laureate Abhijeet Banerjee, who criticised the government’s economic policies, found his personal life pried open by Minister of Railways and Commerce Piyush Goyal, who currently insists “democratic values are alive [and] flourishing in India”.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also made pointed remarks about the “banking mess” left by former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan, who has been a consistent critic of its wrong-headed policies ever since he left office. Sitharaman recently made the astonishing claim, in the face of growing signs of distress, that the Indian economy would not face recession, not now, not “ever”.
The latest criticism comes from a quarter that has been seen as a staunch ally of the BJP in the last few years. India Inc, drawn by the BJP’s promise of business-friendly reforms, helped propel its rise to power. Over five years of indifferent progress and now sluggish growth may have taken a toll on this relationship. Increasingly violent social divisions, weakened institutions and an autocratic government do nothing for India’s image as a stable democracy where investments might find a safe home.
Instead of pulling out its best tinpot impression, the BJP would do well to acknowledge the criticism and address the concerns. In the long run, it is in the party’s own interests.