Rajiv Bajaj terms lockdown draconian, says it flattened the wrong curve

Topics Rajiv Bajaj | Coronavirus | Lockdown

In his chat with Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv Bajaj said India made the mistake of following the experience of western countries, instead of looking at how some of the Asian countries were handling the crisis
The nationwide lockdown has “flattened the wrong curve’’, Rajiv Bajaj, the outspoken managing director of Bajaj Auto, said on Thursday in a widely watched social media conversation with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. In April, Gandhi had posed questions to former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan in a similar interaction.    

In a tongue-in-cheek reply, Bajaj told Gandhi that the lockdown had flattened the GDP (gross domestic product) curve instead of meeting the objective of flattening the infection curve. The country needs a “mood elevator” by putting more money into people’s pockets to spur demand, according to Bajaj.

With fears about Covid-19 infection running deep, he said opening up would be a “herculean task”, adding the prime minister “needed to stand up” to dispel fear and chart the course ahead.  

Calling the lockdown “draconian’’, he said it had “decimated the economy”. On the road ahead, Bajaj believes that a large country like India “cannot save itself out of trouble”, and that “it has to sell itself out of trouble”.

“We have to get demand going again, we have to provide something that lifts the mood of the people. We need some mood elevator,” the 53-year-old said.

In the conversation, recorded on Sunday and released by the Congress on its social media platforms on Thursday morning, Gandhi said he admired Bajaj for being so brave in the current atmosphere. Bajaj said his friends had advised strongly against speaking to Rahul.

India tried to implement a hard lockdown, which was still porous, the industrialist pointed out. “So I think we have ended up with the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, a porous lockdown makes sure that the virus will still exist and it is still waiting to hit you when you will unlock. So you have not solved that problem.”

On unlock 1, the Centre’s initiative to ease the restrictions, Bajaj said a smooth and concerted movement towards unlocking was lacking. He attributed this to the “fear” that has been created about this infection being equal to death. “I am really distressed because it is a herculean task to open,” he said.

Bajaj faulted the government for falling short of “disclosing facts, logic and the truth”. He said people had been led to believe that Covid-19 was equal to a contagious cancer or something. Therefore, it’s hard to convince people on the idea of learning to live with the virus, he said.

The PM, when he says something, right or wrong, people seem to follow, Bajaj told Gandhi. “So, he needs to stand up and say to everyone that this is how we are going to move forward, it’s all under control, do not fear infections, almost nobody is dying.’’  

With Gandhi noting that the government should have had a more decentralised approach and allowed states more freedom, which is now finally taking place, Bajaj said, “To our perception as a common citizen it is happening as passing of the buck and not passing of the strategy.”

It was a mistake to follow the experience of western countries, according to Bajaj. Rather, India should have looked at how some of the Asian countries were handling the crisis. “I think unfortunately, India not only looked west, it went to the wild west.’’

Bajaj expressed his distress at the manner in which the masses, including senior citizens, were being treated, referring to police caning for not wearing masks and labelling people  anti-nationals.

To Gandhi’s question on whether India could do better at manufacturing, Bajaj recounted how a person he was interviewing for the group’s Brazilian operations told him that in a Bajaj product he saw a “a combination of European design, Japanese quality and Indian prices”.

“I think this is a magic formula for so many Indian companies. It doesn’t matter if you are making a mixer grinder or a motorcycle…So I think demand generation starts from wanting to play at a global platform,” Bajaj said, adding that specialization was important. He also agreed with Gandhi that an atmosphere of fear would hurt investments into India.

But he was quick to point out that his father Rahul Bajaj had raised the issue of ‘atmosphere of fear’ with Home Minister Amit Shah at an awards function in November, and that there was no repercussion.

He said some people cannot afford to speak because they are hiding something, while there were others who were reluctant to speak because they may not be able to deal with the backlash. Bajaj said he saw himself in the latter category.

The Bajaj family and the Congress party have had a long association dating back to the freedom struggle. Bajaj’s great grandfather and the founder of the Bajaj group Jamnalal Bajaj was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi.

The family had good relations with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi during their respective tenures as PM. However, in recent years Rajiv Bajaj has been a supporter of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party.

Coming to financial stimulus, Bajaj said a small company with eight employees that a friend of his runs in Detroit, Michigan, received full compensation and other support to help him stay afloat. People in Japan and the US were getting $1000 a person as support, not as stimulus.

“We are not even talking about stimulus here. We are just talking support, whether it is for big businesses, small business and for individuals,” Bajaj said.

The industrialist said in many places in the world two-thirds of what the government had handed out had gone to organisations and people as direct benefits. “In India, it has only been 10 per cent,” he said.

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