Forget the icon, focus on the issue

Topics Rahul Bajaj | corporate India | PMO

We are a society that handles icons far better than it handles issues. So much so that even when issues present themselves, we see the icons involved rather than the issues involved. Indian industry’s outspoken member Rahul Bajaj’s complaint about the environment of fear in corporate India is the latest case in point.

Bajaj spoke in the presence of three Union Cabinet ministers in a public meeting about the environment of fear that is impeding Indian industry’s functioning. Responding to Bajaj in person, the Union Home Minister handled his views with aplomb — no denigration that an actor’s expression of views on “intolerance” had evinced a few years ago. Indeed, another minister later spoke about how this narrative can eventually be taken to be against “national interest”.  

The “mainstream media” has drawn comments not too differently from how social media has covered the event. One newspaper pulled up Bajaj for “speaking half-truth to power”. Others effected the customary hedge — of first pointing out how Bajaj’s intervention should be taken with a pinch of salt before going on to also say that the perception he spoke of must be addressed. The former press advisor to the former Prime Minister, whose book on the functioning of the PMO under UPA-I under remote control from 10 Janpath, had significant traction around the polls in 2014, was among the few who had a categorical and unequivocal endorsement of the need to address what Bajaj raised.

However, the point of this column is not to point out who said what — this column too would then feed the same trend of shifting focus from the issues to the icons. If one were to focus on the issue involved that was raised rather than on who raised the issue, here is a possible construct of the problem at hand:

  • Bank employees see their former colleagues being arrested and charge-sheeted for lending decisions that may well have been bona fide decisions they took on the basis of material available with them;
  • Human behavioral response to avoiding hardship is to avoid the action that led to the hardship -- which is being decisive on a loan file -- therefore officials in the financial services sector are extremely reluctant to take decisions;
  • Borrowers who have a liquidity crunch as a result are unable to meet routine cash flow requirements and that can lead to a payment default, which in turn triggers fears of whether a default would be capable of being explained as a liquidity problem, or whether it would necessarily be regarded as cheating;
  • If the political rulers feel inclined to help with the situation by encouraging banks to lend, they run the risk of being accused (just like their predecessors they would have accused) of supporting crony capitalism; and 
  • Therefore, the formation of private capital gets impeded and business is unable to grow, leading to growth slowing down.
Here again, the debate then moves into whether one can call it “recession” (by and large, understood as negative growth for two quarters) or whether a general slowdown in economic activity is synonymous with recession (even if there is growth at a slower rate). Again, most of the public debate moves into whether the label is right — internet memes on “slowdown not amounting to recession” being compared with banal allegories of health conditions, hijack the issue. Add to it, perfectly intelligent commentators justifying data suppression as a valid policy of governance — it was with dismay that one heard a commentator who also writes in these pages, speak at a book launch several months ago, arguing that every party in power has a right to manipulate statistics to keep a semblance of normalcy around.

The first step in solving a problem lies in acknowledging it. Taking note of who the messenger is, and either shooting him or venerating him, is an exercise in discussing icons. What is necessary is a discussion on the issues raised without being distracted by who raised them and in what forum. It is time for policymakers to leave the subject of free speech and expression to us lawyers, and we can come up with as many nuances on what is a reasonable restriction on free speech and whether the speech content is against national interest.  Instead, it is imperative for policymakers to focus on what can be done to instill greater confidence in banks and financial institutions to loosen their purse strings and lend to businesses so that we do not in fact end up in recession.



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