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Why Indian corporate icons are terrified of the Modi government

The Infosys cofounder Narayan Murthy had criticised the Modi government in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Soon after, in May, according to a PTI story, the Infosys Foundation, an NGO run by Infosys, found its registration cancelled by the home ministry. The NGO, however, has claimed that the deregistration was voluntary. indranil mukherjee / afp / getty images
01 October, 2019

In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in April this year, the Infosys cofounder Narayana Murthy delivered the convocation address to the students of Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata. Without naming any political party, Murthy said that no country could make economic progress without “freedom of faith” and “freedom from fear.” Many interpreted his remark as a dig against the BJP government. In May, according to a Press Trust of India story, the Infosys Foundation—an NGO run by Infosys—found its registration cancelled by the home ministry. The NGO put out a statement claiming that it had voluntarily applied for deregistration in June 2016. The PTI, however, has stood by its story and has not issued a correction.

Regardless of the ambiguity in the case, now that the Modi government has returned to power, Murthy seems to have had a change of heart. On 23 August, he said that the Indian economy is in the best shape it has been in the last three hundred years, despite an avalanche of evidence that might contradict his statement.

The chairperson of Biocon, a biopharmaceutical company, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, also found recently that her views were not taken lightly by the government. When the owner of Café Coffee Day, VG Siddartha, was found dead earlier this year, many people speculated that he might have taken his own life following harassment from tax authorities. Shaw, who was once a bitter critic of the United Progressive Alliance government’s pro-poor policies, also expressed concern about incidents of “tax terrorism.” In August, Shaw told The Telegraph, a government official called her about her remarks, warning her not to make “such statements.”

The entrepreneurs in India remain a fearful kind of people, where only few have dared to discuss glaring problems such as harassment by tax authorities and forced donations. While there is widespread discontent among Indian corporates about the ongoing economic slowdown, few are willing to criticise the government in public. The scrutiny and vindictiveness of the present government is such, that any incident of speaking out has had real consequences. Even though many businessmen and women I have spoken to are becoming nostalgic about the previous economic regime, the sentiment is only expressed in private. The history of tussles between the corporate world and politicians—especially strongmen such as Modi—shows that there is good reason for this fear.

Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and author. Her columns and political analyses appear on several media platforms across the country.