Intolerance has been the strongest charge levelled against the Narendra Modi government since it came to power in 2014. The Modi government was accused of encouraging social intolerance - when attacks were reported on religious minorities - and then of political intolerance - when Opposition leaders were probed by government agencies.
Now, the charge of economic intolerance is gaining currency. Noted and often vocal industrialist Rahul Bajaj spelt it out at an event last week attended by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Railways and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal.
Both the senior ministers were on the stage when Rahul Bajaj said the industrialists are not sure if they would be spared if they criticised the government's economic policies.
Stating that former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the tallest Congress leader of his time, gave him his name, Rahul Bajaj said, "We could abuse anyone during UPA-II ruleYou are doing a good job but there is no confidence [among industrialists] that if we criticise you openly, you will appreciate that."
"No industrialist will speak about it," said Rahul Bajaj adding, "They are laughing saying 'go, get crucified' but I will say openly environment [of trust] has to be created."
This was perhaps the bitterest criticism of the Modi government by an industrialist. There have been reports that the industrialists are worried about what many call "tax terrorism" and persecution by government's financial investigation agencies in the aftermath of demonetisation and rollout of the goods and services tax (GST) between November 2016 and July 2017. This is incidentally the phase when the story of the Indian economy's downturn is said to have begun.
The charge that Rahul Bajaj made against the Modi government was denied by Amit Shah in his response when he said, Amit Shah said, "After hearing your question I doubt anybody believes this claim that people are afraid [of the government]."
"No one needs to fear anything still if you say an atmosphere needs to be created, we will have to work for improving the atmosphere as well," Amit Shah went on to say further.
AND, THE BACKLASH
However, following the exchange between Rahul Bajaj and Amit Shah, senior BJP leaders hit back at the senior industrialists virtually proving the point he made on Saturday.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman took to Twitter to accuse Rahul Baja of "spreading one's own impressions" in a way that "can hurt national interest".
She wrote on Twitter, "Home Minister @AmitShah answers on how issues raised by Shri. Rahul Bajaj were addressed. Questions/ criticisms are heard and answered/ addressed. Always a better way to seek an answer than spreading one's own impressions which, on gaining traction, can hurt national interest."
Urban Development Minister Hardeep Puri, a former diplomat who was the permanent representative of India to the United Nations under UPA government during 2009-13, too took to Twitter to launch a fresh volley at Rahul Bajaj accusing him of weaving "fake narratives" and hurling "invectives" at the Modi government.
Puri said, "There are societies in the world which are governed by fear, but a society where citizens can weave fake narratives & hurl invectives at the govt cannot be classified as one governed by fear, it is a society characterized by fair dose of indiscipline."
He further said Rahul Bajaj did not only express himself standing up to Amit Shah's face but also "instigate others to join him clearly indicate that freedom of expression & democratic values are alive & flourishing in India. This is exactly what democracy is all about."
FROM THE PARTY
However, the most stinging backlash came from BJP's IT cell head Amit Malviya, who put out a couple of videos of Rahul Bajaj suggesting that the industrialist is ideologically affiliated to the Congress party.
Malviya wrote on Twitter: 'It is difficult for me to praise anyone', said Rahul Bajaj except of course if it is Rahul Gandhi. Wear your political affiliation on your sleeve and don't hide behind inanities like there is an atmosphere of fear and all that"
He followed it up with another tweet targeting Rahul Bajaj: "If one had such fawning view of Rahul Gandhi, when he is an unmitigated disaster, then it is only natural to spin imaginary yarn and assume the worst for the current regime. Truth be told - industrialists who flourished in the license raj will always be beholden to the Congress."
RAHUL BAJAJ NOT IN ISOLATION
What Rahul Bajaj said and hinted at last week was not an isolated view. Two comments are worth taking note of in this connection.
First, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy's. He has gone public criticising the finance minister saying Sitharaman is addressing the economic crisis from the wrong end of supply chain while the problem lies on demand side.
Soon after the GDP growth rate figure for July-September, Swamy was quoted to have said in an interview that "he [PM Modi] does not want he does not want any minister to talk back to him, let alone in public, but in private cabinet meetings too."
This is what Rahul Bajaj hinted at when he said there is no confidence that criticism would be appreciated.
The other comment was made by Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. Echoing what Rahul Bajaj said to Amit Shah, Shaw wrote on Twitter: "Hope the govt reaches out to India inc for working out solutions to revive consumption n growth. So far we are all pariahs n govt does not want to hear any criticism of our economy."
But before the Modi government could reach out to India Inc, the ministers and the members of the ruling BJP singled out Rahul Bajaj for saying that industrialists are living under an "atmosphere of fear" that should be addressed to build trust for the betterment of the economy. This is in sharp contrast to what Amit Shah said in response that the government would look into the concern raised by Rahul Bajaj though the Union home minister refuted the industrialist's charge.