Businessmen remain clueless in face of Modi govt’s stick and carrot strategy

The ruling regime is using Central agencies to make people fall in line. And there are very few businessmen brave enough to tell off the government

Businessmen remain clueless in face of Modi govt’s stick and carrot strategy

Sujata Anandan

During the first Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra between 1995 and 1999, life was miserable for the common man. Wedding and birthday celebrations could not be held in hotels because the Sena's labour unions, which controlled unions in hotels and hospitals, would demand that they too be paid.

So, if someone had a heart surgery by borrowing money to pay for it, there would still be an extortionist demand from both the doctor and the patient. If they could afford to pay lakhs and doctors could earn as much, they could surely afford to pay the 'khandani' (extortion money), they would be told.

Professionals like lawyers, chartered accountants and others tended to make themselves inconspicuous by dressing simply; well-heeled and suited-booted people were at greater risk of receiving extortion calls. They stopped driving fancy cars and switched to smaller ones. Middle class housing societies too had to pay up as receipts for large amounts or demand notes were just stuffed into their mailboxes.

Businessmen in the city were in a class of their own. They lost several ‘khokas’ (crores) that were not returned even when their work was not done.

During the onion crisis in 1998 when it looked as though the BJP might lose elections in Delhi and Rajasthan but win in Madhya Pradesh, a group of businessmen approached Laxman Singh, brother of the then MP chief minister Digvijaya Singh, who was at the time facing an uphill task in retaining his state for the Congress.

Laxman Singh, then still in the Congress, was attending an entrepreneurs’ meet in Mumbai and this particular businessman, not caring about the presence of reporters, asked him longingly, “Saab, Madhya Pradesh mein Congress jeetegi?”

This businessman was a member of the group called ‘Friends of Shiv Sena’. Uddhav Thackeray, upset that the Shiv Sainiks were mostly only lumpen elements, had been assiduously wooing businessmen to the party and most of these, as this one, was poached from the BJP.

The businessman took me aside to tell me, sotto voce, “If the Congress sweeps all the states going to polls, Sonia Gandhi will be able to bring down the (Atal Behari) Vajpayee government at the Centre. If that happens, surely, the Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra will also fall and fresh elections might lead to a return of the Congress. Frankly, we are tired of the bullying and the extortion."

The Congress did win Madhya Pradesh but Sonia Gandhi did nothing to destabilise the Vajpayee government. The Shiv Sena continued with its extortionist policies but soon top entrepreneurs and builders got together at the Chowpatty sands and put out the call, ‘Enough is enough!”

One top builder, whose family had migrated from Sindh, said, “My father did not flee Pakistan and come to India to have his wealth ransomed to someone who does not deserve it!”

Another businessman said, “If we all get together to resist and do not allow anyone to break our ranks, this will not happen.” Senior police officers who were tired of the Shiv Sena’s ways – the Sena being part of the government made it so much more difficult to take action against them – were also on the dais and openly defiant in advising the businessmen on how to resist.

Thackeray, the biggest bully until then, was speechless. The extortions stopped almost overnight and Mumbai heaved a sigh of relief.

In those days, during my frequent visits to Matoshree for long interviews, in some off-the-record chats, I learnt that Bal Thackeray had little respect for people who caved in to him easily and was a bit wary of those who stood up to him. And he had discovered that most people could be bent to his will through either threats or by promising them some largesse. So, when the businessmen called him out and refused to play on his terms, he simply did not know what to do.

The current BJP government at the Centre has borrowed from Thackeray’s book but on a bigger national scale. Then, Thackeray was curtailed by Vajpayee’s commitment to the Constitution; now, the regime is using central agencies instead of local goons to make people fall in line. And there are very few businessmen brave enough to tell off the government.

The Bajajs are one such family. The Godrejs are another. Both Rahul and his son Rajiv Bajaj have in the past voiced their opinions about misinformed government policies. Pirojsha Godrej has been the latest among those you can count on your fingers. Privately, they all rage against the government but few have the courage to speak out. Those who have no debts, whose books are balanced, are paying their dues and do not need to depend on the government are the ones with the courage. The others are sycophants and supplicants.

But most big industrialists with a lot riding on the government have been disappointing. Even some of those who were once revered for their moral compass, integrity and courage in the industry have turned out to have feet of clay. Aren’t they too big to fail? But they are taking to the softer option of sucking up to the government and assert what is patently false. They seem destined to be reduced to footnotes of history.

Views are personal

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