Over two months after one of the most stringent lockdowns was announced with no prior notice, the devastating impact on the economy is obvious. Businesses across India have come to a grinding halt and unprepared essential services grapple with a severely disrupted supply chain. A consensus is emerging that the harsh lockdown has been a failure. The draconian measures have flattened the Indian economy instead of the virus.
Lakhs of businesses across India are unlikely to survive this devastating blow and it could be years before many can bounce back. Already reeling under the worst economic downturn in over a decade and the highest unemployment in 46 years, India has a challenging road ahead. The stimulus package does little to rebuild business confidence and has left many with little leeway to bounce back. The constant back and forth movements regarding regulations for reopening have left businesses paralyzed.
Rahul Gandhi in a freewheeling conversation with Rajiv Bajaj, Managing Director of Bajaj Auto, discusses the impact of the lockdown and what it means for the Indian economy.
RAHUL GANDHI : Good Morning Rajiv, How are you?
RAJIV BAJAJ : Good Morning Rahul, very well. Nice to see you again.
RAHUL GANDHI : How are things with you in the COVID situation. How is it looking?
RAJIV BAJAJ :I think we are all trying to find some certainty in uncertain times. It is a new experience for everyone. It is a bitter sweet experience; let us put it like that. Some of us who can aord it are not too unhappy to be home. But when you see what is happening around you with both businesses and with the masses, it is certainly more bitter than sweet. So every day brings a new learning on how to cope with it, whether in terms of business, in terms of one’s own emotions, in medical terms.
RAHUL GANDHI : It’s quite surreal. I don’t think anyone imagined that the world would be locked down in this way. I don’t think even during the world war, the world was locked down. Even then, things were open. It’s a unique and devastating sort of phenomena.
RAJIV BAJAJ : I will say this that I have friends and family, starting with Japan, because of our association with Kawasaki. People I know in Singapore, people I know in so many places in Europe. People in US of course, close friends and family in New York, Michigan, DC and when you say that the world has never been locked down like this. Disruption… the way India has been locked down is a draconian lockdown. This kind of lockdown, I’m not hearing about from anywhere else. All my friends and family from across the world have always been free to step out, to take a walk, to go and buy something they require, to go and visit someone and say hello. So in terms of the social and emotional aspects of this lockdown, they seem to have been in a much better place.
RAHUL GANDHI : And it came suddenly also. The shocking thing to me frankly, the point you made about bitter sweet. Look, well o people can deal with this kind of situation. They have a home, they have an ecosystem which is comfortable, but what it has been for the poor people, for the migrants has been completely devastating. They have lost condence actually. Kaa logon ne bola hai ki bharosa kho gaya hai, bharosa hi nahi bacha and that I think is a very sad thing, and a dangerous thing for the country.
RAJIV BAJAJ : I think right from the beginning, this is my view, whether it was in terms of how this problem was to be perceived, I don’t understand how despite being an Asian country, we sought not to look at what was happening East, we looked at Italy, France, Spain, UK and the US. Which are not really the right benchmarks in any sense. Whether it is in terms of inherent immunity, temperature, demography, pre disposition to thrombosis etc. Everything that the scientists and doctors have spoken of, we should never have been looking there.
Even in terms of how to approach this from a medical point of view, starting with the bogey of medical infrastructure. We are all aware that there can be no medical infrastructure that can be adequate to combat something like this. But nobody was willing to explain the maths to us. We are so many people, so many are vulnerable, 5% or whatever that is. This is what that looks like, this is how we are preparing ourselves or perhaps we cannot prepare ourselves. Maybe that is not a politically appropriate thing to say. But as Narayan Murthi ji always says, when in doubt always disclose. I think we have fallen very short of disclosing- facts, logic and the truth. And this has then got amplied and installed such an enormous fear in people that people seem to think that the contagion is equal to a contagious cancer or something. And now to change the mind of people and bring them back on board, and make them comfortable with the thought of living with the virus, which seems to be the new narrative coming from the government now. It is going to take a long time.
What do you feel? This is how I feel.
RAHUL GANDHI : I was speaking to some experts and some specialists. And right in the early days of the lockdown, what one of them told me and which stuck in my mind, was that, look the moment you apply a full lockdown, you are changing the nature of the disease. You are making this non fatal disease to a fatal disease in the minds of the people. Once you’ve done that, then to reverse that, that is going to take a signicant amount of time and it is going to take a lot of eort. He also said that don’t view the lockdown as an on-off switch. It is not going to be an on-off switch.
Once you have moved into a lockdown, switching it o again is not going to be easy. It is going to be extremely complicated. I liked your point about, we look West and not East. Why do you think we look West?
RAJIV BAJAJ :I guess as some people say, it’s the rst time that something like this say as opposed to TB, or pneumonia or Diarrhoea that apparently kills a 100,000 largely children in India. Here is something that struck in the heart of the developed world. When the rich and famous get aected, it always makes a bigger headline. As someone said in the very early days of this problem, that 8000 kids die of starvation in Africa every single day. Who cares beyond a point in civil society, we are not even aware of this factor. I think primarily the sensation was because auent people in developed countries were vulnerable and perhaps some people inferred that ‘inko aise ho sakta hai to hum kahan ke nahi rahe’. This kind of feeling. I have once said to people, that to my mind as a layman, I saw from the beginning there were 4 choices before us-
At one extreme on the left if I may say so is the choice of a hard lockdown. Which implies an airtight, impervious lockdown. And to the best of my knowledge, this has not happened anywhere in the world. To physically constrain yourself to your home and see absolutely no one.
On the other extreme I would say, business as usual. Just ignore it, carry on, jo hoga so hoga.
Nobody says this either. Everybody is trying to nd a middle path between these two extremes. I think unfortunately, India not only looked West, it went to the wild west. I think we stayed more towards the impervious side. We tried to implement a hard lockdown which was still porous. So I think we have ended up with the worst of both worlds.
On one hand a porous lockdown makes sure that the virus will still exist and as you said, it is still waiting to hit you when you will unlock. So you have not solved that problem.
But you have denitely decimated the economy. You attened the wrong curve.It is not the infection curve, it is the GDP curve. This is what we have ended up with, the worst of both worlds. In my view, what should have been done is something more right of centre. Which is the kind of stu that we are hearing out of Japan and Sweden. And people when they hear about this in terms of being articulated as herd immunity, tend to think that herd immunity means let the vulnerable die. It doesn’t mean that at all. They are missing the details, whether it is in terms of sanitization, masks, distancing etc. Sweden, Japan etc. are following all these practices but they are not trying to go further into the unproductive zone as you said. Make something that is relatively benign and manageable, appear to be fatal and beyond control. I think unfortunately we have a quasi hard lockdown I would say, which has given us the worst of both worlds.
RAHUL GANDHI : And looking at our situation, it is completely dierent. We have migrants, we have daily wage laborers and for some reason, we look West. Interesting question to me is, why didn’t we look internally for our own solution? Why didn’t we instead of looking to the West or to the East, why didn’t we say that we are actually a condent country, let’s look at ourselves and let’s come out with an Indian solution., which is sort of what you do with your motor cycles. Why was that not the natural impulse?
RAJIV BAJAJ :So if you were to have the kind of luxury of going back to the middle of March. Jab Pradhan Mantri ji ne Janta Curfew announce kiya, phir rst lockdown announce kiya. If you could go back then, to your mind how would you have crafted a dierent roadmap for the last three months?
RAHUL GANDHI : Hindsight is 20/20, so it is much easier for me to tell you how I would have crafted it. But what our discussion internally in the Congress party was at the time that the response has to be decentralised. Central Government has to operate as a support system and as an enabler. Certain things that the central government needs to do eg. Air trac, railways etc. that it does. But then it moves the battle to the districts, to the CMs, allows them and enables them to ght.
Now if you look at what has happened after the lockdown, which by the way, I call it a failed lockdown. It is the only lockdown in the world where the disease is increasing after we are opening up. What you are nding is that you are going back to that anyway. The central Government has backed o and has said that now we are going to be forced to leave it to the States. So the correct response is happening organically.
RAJIV BAJAJ :To our perception as a common citizen it is happening as passing of the buck and not passing of the strategy.
RAHUL GANDHI : That’s ne, that might be the case. But the result is, India has had a 2 month pause button. India is now going back and reacting the way it should have reacted on day 1. Now the country has taken over. You can see a dierent strategies coming out. You can see a strategy in Punjab, you can see a strategy in Chhattisgarh, you can see a strategy in Maharashtra. Some will do better than the others. You’ve got a more bespoke response where the cost will suddenly drop. The ability to deal with the situation will improve. That is one aspect of it.
The second aspect of it is, and I think it is absolutely fundamental. I saw what the Germans have done, some of what the Americans have done. What the Koreans have done, what the Japanese have done. Massive injection of money to save the economy. I’m speaking to a big business guy, you don’t view it as big business, small business, labourer, not labourer. You view it as ‘Our biggest resource is our economy’. We have to at all cost protect our economy. Whoever has to be supported right now, should be supported, period, the end. So that would be a second component of a strategy.
Some people argue you know support the Small and medium businesses. Absolutely, 100% but there is a link between SME and Mr. Bajaj. SME cannot operate without the big businesses. So you have to create a holistic structure. The central thing in my view, this is something in my little experience that I have learnt is that, in India if you want to do something, be compassionate. Be compassionate and listen. And the country will automatically tell you what it is desiring. So there are people right now, screaming in pain and the most obvious are: the manual labourers, daily wagers. And maybe the farmers, and the SM businesses. But big businesses are also screaming in pain, because they don’t see a future. So a huge component of it is, building condence. The leadership to build condence to say, ok listen we are here. The country has had a terrible time, there is a virus that has hurt everybody, now we are going to support everybody and carry everybody out together from this situation. So there is an empathy that has to be built into it, where the Indian citizen, whether he is big business, medium business, farmer or labourer says haan bhai ho jayega, nikal jayenge, naiya paar ho jayegi, that feeling has to come. My main issue is that when you have a top down situation, that empathy is not there. Then, you basically break the will of people to ght. That would be my long answer to you. I don’t know what you think about that.
RAJIV BAJAJ :I mean I agree with most parts of what you are saying. To put some color onto that.
I was speaking with the Pune Police Commissioner Dr. Venkatesh, a very ne man. I said to him Dr. sahib, my dissonance is that for the 50 years that I have lived in Pune and I am particularly sensitive to the fact, that India is the capital of the world when it comes to fatalities from road accidents. Whatever be the causes, that is the net result. But maine aaj tak kabhi aisa nahi dekha jab log 30-40-50 tak ke log bina helmet ke riding kartein hain, toh police waley kya kartein hain. 99.9% of the time kuch nahi kartien hain. On the other hand, kisi ne agar mask nahi pehna or someone steps out for a morning walk you are caning them, making them do exercises in the middle of the road to humiliate them. Aapne unke haat mein board laga diya ki main deshdrohi hoon, main gaddar hoon etc. Where is proportion in the way we are treating our own people. You talked about compassion. I’m talking about examples that I have seen with my own eyes here. I have seen senior citizens being caned for simply stepping out to get some fresh air.
A very close friend of mine from college who lives in Detroit, Michigan, Sanjay who you met a couple of years back. He has a small company. He has 8 people, he received full compensation and lot of other support that has helped him stay aoat. Otherwise, someone like that would have been in a lot of trouble.
We hear stories of people from Japan, USA getting 1000 dollars 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. I am aware of how authentic these numbers are. But I am told in many places in the world, two-thirds of what the government has handed out had gone to organisations and people as direct benets. Whereas in India, it has only been 10%. You would be better placed to comment on why we have not chosen to put more directly in the hands of people.
RAHUL GANDHI : It has frankly been shocking to me and us in the INC, including ex PM, Finance Minister. I’ve been trying to gure this out myself. Couple of days back, I sent a feeler to some of the government people. I said that I don’t understand why you are not giving a stimulus. Because logically it makes absolute sense. And I said, forget the politics of it, just give me the logic of it. I want to understand the logic, I don’t understand the logic. And the response I got, it was a couple of bullet points.
Point no. 1- There is a huge opportunity for India with regards to China.
Point no. 2- If we give a handout to our labour now, bigad jayenge. They will get spoilt and they will not come back from their villages.
Point no. 3- We might send a wrong message to the international community who we will need to invest in us.
Point no.4- Later we might consider giving money to these labourers and SM businesses.
Whoever is going to invest in India is going to invest not because of your image, they are going to invest because of what you are and what you have. And what you are and what you have is your economy.
So the ûrst logic has to be, defend that economy. If you defend that economy well, you’ll have an image and you’ll succeed in inviting whoever you want here. If you don’t have an economy left, there is nothing.
RAJIV BAJAJ :I strongly believe that a large country like India cannot save itself out of trouble. 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. And I do not understand why there is no strong initiative, even if it is for a period of 6 months-1 year, to strongly lift the mood of the people and provide a stimulus to demand.
RAHUL GANDHI : The economy slowed down before Coronavirus. Unemployment was becoming a serious problem before Coronavirus. Now Corona pushed it over the edge. How do you see India taking care of its unemployment problem? How do we think about it moving forward? You are of course a part of the puzzle. Small and Medium industries are a much bigger part of the puzzle. How do you unleash this manufacturing, which I believe is absolutely critical, I mean I am not one of those people who think that India can be built without manufacturing. So how do we start competing on the global stage?
RAJIV BAJAJ :The other day I was interviewing a potential senior candidate out of Brazil, because Bajaj is now thinking of entering Brazil and I asked him a question. Honda is so dominant in Brazil, the other Japanese have not been able to dislodge Honda, why do you think that Bajaj has a chance. He said something very simple, but often the truth resides in simple things. In Bajaj I see a combination of European design and 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. Whatever it is. I think the world can be your oyster if you look at it from this lens. So I think demand generation starts from wanting to play at a global platform. Next this automatically means that you have to narrow down the things that you are doing. If you want to be Dhoni, you can’t play six sports at the same time. Everybody knows that. A great chef, a great spokesperson, a great doctor, a great musician they all specialise. Companies must specialise. I think the simple meaning of strategy is specialisation.
RAHUL GANDHI : But in the things you said, I found one thing very interesting. You said Japanese technology, European styling and Indian prices. What you are basically saying is that India is a bridge. India is a bridge connecting bridge between different cultures. Between different systems. That is something that India has historically been very good at. And if you look when we have been successful, we have always operated as a connector. Whether it has been in sort of our foreign policy or business system or whether it is in our philosophy. We have the ability that not many countries or civilizations have of absorbing. Of taking in things. I don’t think anybody could have made a statement to you about a Chinese product that says it has European styling, Japanese engineering and Chinese price. Even if it was the case, China cannot get stuck in that same equation in the way in which India can. That is a powerful thing for us.
RAJIV BAJAJ :And I agree with you. That is a very valid point and I never looked at it like that. I think, I was asking myself as you were speaking why is this the case. Of course partly our temperament, partly it’s our proficiency in English I suppose. But more than anything, I think when I reflect on that I think it is because we are very open as people. I don’t mean this negatively. I would say, we demonstrate more openness to understand, to learn. Sometimes maybe we are in awe of them, that’s why we do it, sometimes, it is, we are genuinely intellectually turned on by something; but whatever it is, we are very open as people, very open as a country, it may work against us sometimes. This openness, you know, should never be lost. This is very important, as you were saying, whether it is in terms of Govt. or in terms of business.
RAHUL GANDHI : But you said openness. Right? And we are open, our civilization is open because there has been, traditionally, a certain tolerance in our country. Do... I mean, jo kahena hai keh do. Right? And that’s been the case. One gets the sense that that has reduced significantly over the last couple of years. I mean, I’ll be candid with you. Yesterday, a friend of mine asked me, you know, what is your next interview? And I said, you know, I’m speaking to Mr. Bajaj and the guy said, “Oh dum hai bande me”. So I said, what do you mean? And he said, “Well he’s got guts to speak to you”, right?
RAJIV BAJAJ :I mean, I’ll tell you my experiences. In fact, very similar to yours. I shared with someone yesterday, that kal 12 baje, I’m speaking with Rahul and this thing. And the first reaction was, don’t do it. I said, but why not?, ‘Mat karna, this can get you into trouble’. But I said, I may have said some things, perhaps a little too vehemently, but I’ve said it on NDTV, I’ve said it in the economic times paper, I’ve said it on Aaj Tak, I’ve said it on so many channels, so many media, so ab galti hai to galti ho chuki hai. He said, ‘Nahi, media me bolna ek baat hai but Rahul Gandhi se baatein karna ek doosri baat hai’. I pushed that actually a bit, I’ll tell you very candidly. I said, We are going to talk about business, economics, lockdown, what to do, how to move forward, technology, products, he loves motorcycles and so we’ll talk about motorcycles etc. Abhi ye baatein bhi nahi ho sakti hai kya? So that person maintained, that why, why take a risk? But yes, that is the general mahol and you know, my own father raised that point, in November, at the economic times award function, where the home minister was there, the finance minister was there. So, you know, one hears a lot about this, but I try to ask people why this should be so because at least so far I have not faced any repercussion, so to speak, of this. But yes, what you say is true, this seems to be the general impression, which is sad because I think this openness is our strength and we must not lose it.
RAHUL GANDHI : Do you think this sort of mahaul that you spoke about, of fear damages business in India?
RAJIV BAJAJ :Nahi, dekhiyea, nobody will invest unless he does so with enthusiasm and confidence. So iss me toh koi doubt hai nahi. Ab saval ye uthta hai Hindustan me ki if 100 people are afraid to speak up, first point is perhaps 90 of them anyway have something to hide. See, we must also accept that in the last few years, towards, I would say UPA2 and NDA1, lot of skeletons have come out of the cupboard also. So businessmen are also not doodh ka dhula hua and so many examples we’ve seen of that, so 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 can’t afford to speak. So, it may be fear, but the question is, fear of what? Maybe they have the fear of hiding something. Second, I would say, there are people and I think highly of such people, who do not want to speak. Who simply do not want to because they cannot deal with the backlash that comes their way, you know, and a little bit I fall into that category. You know, there is a reason I’m not on any social media and without naming a couple of channels I will say to you that even yesterday, I had an invite from the most prominent channel that is very pro govt., if I may say so, and I refuse to be on such channels because of the kind of stuff one hears on social media, the way one sees things conducted in panels on such channels is deeply distressing to anybody who is even remotely sensitive. So, I think yes, in terms of being tolerant, in terms of being sensitive, I think, India needs to mend a couple of things.
RAHUL GANDHI : Final question. Now we are in the process of opening up, how do you think about your supply chain as we open up, when does your supply chain actually start to function at a reasonable level? What... What opening up fully require?
RAJIV BAJAJ :See I’m not seeing that smooth, concerted, rhythmic movement towards unlocking. Yes, I understand, based on what I have heard yesterday also, that we are moving in that direction, but I think, a kind of aligned approach that is required, ke bhai one person will say one thing, abhi I don’t know whether that is to be the CM of the state or the DM or whoever it is supposed to be and everybody in an aligned way must go forward. This is not happening and I think the blame for this rests again with the kind of fear we created in the first place, you know, that infection= death. And today, as infections rise, people are still carrying that this thing, so I’m sorry I’m not answering your question directly, but I am really distressed because it is a herculean task to open.
So I think that the first problem is to get this fear out of the minds of the people, there has to be a very clear aligned narrative, I would say from the PM because, right or wrong, when he says something people seem to follow. I think 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, you know and we have to move forward now.
RAHUL GANDHI : Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much Rajiv. Lovely talking to you.
RAJIV BAJAJ :Thank you. Thank you for the so much time you spent with me. Thank you very much, really appreciate it.