The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown announced by the government have been an unprecedented double whammy for India. While the number of Covid-19 cases is rising every day, the forecast is that the economy is likely to further shrink this year. On 31 May 2020, Mr Rahul Gandhi, past President of the Indian National Congress, had a detailed conversation with Mr Rajiv Bajaj, Managing Director, Bajaj Auto, regarding our economic situation. They discussed India’s response to the Covid-19 virus, the economic impact of the lockdown, how to restart the economy, and much more. Inspire! is privileged to share an abridged and lightly−edited transcript of this conversation with its readers. The full transcript and video of the interview will be available on the Inspire! website soon.
Rahul Gandhi (RG): How are things with you in the Covid-19 situation? How is it looking?
Rajiv Bajaj (RB): I think we are all trying to find some certainty in uncertain times. It is a bittersweet experience, but when you see what is happening around you with both businesses and the masses, it is certainly more bitter than sweet. Every day brings new learning on how to cope, whether in terms of business, in terms of one’s own emotions, or medical issues.
RG:RG: It is quite surreal. It is a unique and devastating sort of phenomenon.
RB: Disruption... the way India has been locked down; (it) is a draconian lockdown. This kind of lockdown, I do not hear about from anywhere else.
RG: The shocking thing to me, frankly: the point you made about bittersweet. Look, well off people can deal with this kind of situation. But for the poor people, for the migrants, it has been utterly devastating. They have lost confidence. That, I think, is an unfortunate thing and a dangerous thing.
RB: I don’t understand how, despite being an Asian country, we did not look at what was happening in the East. We looked at Italy, France, Spain, the UK, and the US. They are not the right benchmarks in any sense.
I think we have fallen very short of disclosing the facts, logic, and the truth. And this has instilled such an enormous fear in people. The new narrative coming from the government is that we have to live with the virus. It is going to take a long time to convince people of that.
RG: What an expert told me has stuck with me. He said, the moment you apply a full lockdown, you are making this generally non−fatal disease into a fatal illness in people’s minds. Once you’ve done that, then to reverse that thinking will take much time and effort. I liked your point that we looked West, not East. Why did this happen?
RB: Because affluent people in developed countries were vulnerable, and perhaps some people inferred that “inko aise ho sakta hai to hum kahin ke nahi rahe (if this can happen to them, there’s no more hope than this for us),” I think. Unfortunately, India not only looked West, but it also went to the Wild West. We tried to implement a hard lockdown, which was still porous. So I think we have ended up with the worst of both worlds.
You did not solve any problem. But the economy was decimated. The GDP curve was flattened, not the infection curve. In my view, India should have done something different, which is the kind of stuff that we saw in Japan and Sweden.
RG: Why didn’t we look internally for our solution? Why was that not the natural impulse?
RB: So, if you were to have the kind of luxury of going back to the middle of March, how would you have crafted a different roadmap?
RG: Hindsight is 20/20, so it is much easier to tell you how I would have crafted it. But our discussion internally in the Congress party at the time was that the response has to be decentralized. The central government has to operate as a support system and as an enabler. But then it moves the battle to the districts, to the CMs, allows them and enables them to fight. Now, the central government has said that we are going to leave it to the states. So the correct response is happening now..
RB: To our perception as ordinary citizens, it is happening as a passing of the buck or responsibility, and not passing of strategy.
RG: Now, you can see different strategies
coming out of the states, a Punjab strategy, a Chhattisgarh strategy, a Maharashtra strategy. Some will do better than others. A second, absolutely fundamental need is a massive injection of money to save the economy. You don’t view it as big business, small business, labourer, not a labourer. We have to, at all costs, protect our economy. Whoever has to be supported right now should get support. Period.
Some people say support only small and medium businesses. But they cannot operate without big companies. So, you have to create a holistic structure and be compassionate and listen. The country will automatically tell you what it desires. So, there are people right now, screaming in (economic) pain. The most obvious are manual labourers, daily wagers, farmers, and small businesses. But big companies are also crying in pain because they don’t see a future. So, a significant component of it is building confidence.
RB: To add some colour to what you are saying: In Pune, “log bina helmet ke riding kartein hain, toh police waley kya kartein hain? 99.9 percent of the time kuch nahi kartien hain (In Pune, people commonly don’t use the helmet when riding two− wheelers. So, what does the traffic police do? For 99.9% times they don’t do anything).” On the other hand, “kisi ne agar mask nahi pehna (if someone doesn’t wear a mask),” or if someone steps out for a morning walk, you are caning them or humiliating them. Where is the proportion in the way we are treating our people. You talked about compassion. I have seen senior citizens being caned for merely stepping out to get some fresh air.
We hear stories of people from Japan, the USA, getting USD 1,000 a person as support. We are not even talking about stimulus here. We are just talking support, whether for big businesses, small businesses, or individuals. In many places, two−thirds of what the government has handed out had gone to people as direct benefits. In India, it has only been 10 percent. You would be better placed to comment on why we have not chosen to put more directly in the hands of the people.
RG: It has frankly been shocking to the entire INC, including our ex−PM. I have been trying to figure this out myself. I want to understand the logic.
RB: I firmly believe that a vast country like India cannot save itself out of trouble. It has to sell itself out of trouble. We have to get “demand” going again and provide something that lifts the mood of the people. I don’t understand why there is no major initiative to raise peoples’ spirits and give a stimulus to “demand”.
RG: Unemployment was (already) becoming a severe problem before coronavirus. Now corona pushed it over the edge. How do you see India taking care of its unemployment problem? How do we start competing on the global stage?
RB: Bajaj is now thinking of entering Brazil. I asked a Brazilian job candidate: Why do you think that Bajaj has a chance? He said something simple. In Bajaj, I see a combination of European design, Japanese quality, and Indian prices.
I think this is a magic formula for us to compete globally, whether making a mixer grinder or a motorcycle.
If you want to be Dhoni, you can’t play six sports at the same time. A great chef, a great spokesperson, a great doctor, a great musician, they all specialize. Companies must specialize.
RG: You said Japanese technology, European styling, and Indian prices. What you are saying is that India is a bridge connecting different cultures, different systems. India has historically been very good at this. That is a powerful thing for us.
RB: And I agree with you. I think it is because we are very open people. We demonstrate openness to understand, to learn. This openness should never be lost, whether in government or business.
RG: You said openness. Right? And we are open. There has been, traditionally, a certain level of tolerance in our country. I mean, “jo kahena hai keh do (one can say whatever one wants to).” Right? One gets the sense that has reduced significantly over the last couple of years. I will be candid with you. Yesterday, a friend asked, “What is your next interview?” And I said, “I am speaking to Mr Bajaj.” And the guy said, “Oh, dum hai bande me (Oh, that man has guts)!” So I asked, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, he has got the guts to speak to you, right?”
RB: I will tell you about my experiences. I shared with someone that tomorrow I would be speaking with Rahul. And the reaction was, “Don’t do it.” I said, “Why not? I have shared my views everywhere, on so many channels. So “ab galti hai to galti ho chuki hai (So now, if it is a mistake, the mistake has already been made).” “Nahi, media me bolna ek baat hai but Rahul Gandhi se baatein karna ek dusri baat hai (No, sharing your comments in the Media is an aspect separate from talking to Rahul Gandhi),” I was told. This seems to be the general impression, which is sad. I think this openness is our strength, and we must not lose it.
RG: Do you think this sort of “mahaul (environment)” of fear damages businesses in India?
RB: Nobody will invest unless he does so with enthusiasm and confidence. So “iss me toh koi doubt hai nahi (there is no doubt in this).” We must also accept that in UPA2 and NDA1 a lot of skeletons have come out of the closet. So many people in business are also not “doodh ka dhula hua (innocent).” Maybe my view is that a lot of people don’t speak, unlike, if I may say so, somebody like my father, simply because perhaps they cannot afford to speak. So, I think, yes, in terms of being tolerant, in terms of being sensitive, I think India needs to mend a couple of things.
RG: Final question. How do you view your supply chain as we open up? When does your supply chain start to function reasonably?
RB: I do not see that smooth, concerted, rhythmic movement towards unlocking. The kind of aligned approach that is required isn’t happening. The problem is the kind of fear we created initially that infection=death. I am sorry I am not answering your question directly, but I am distressed because it is a Herculean task to open. I think that first we must get this fear out of the minds of the people. There has to be a clear, aligned narrative from the PM because, right or wrong, when he says something, people seem to follow. I think he needs to stand up and tell everyone how we are going to move forward. We have to move forward now!
RG: Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much, Rajiv. It has been lovely talking to you.
RB: Thank you. Thank you for so much time that you spent with me. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.