This is the concluding part of the series. Part 1 can be accessed here.
The life of Jamnalal Bajaj (1889-1942) exemplifies the freedom of thought and action that Indian industrialists enjoyed during the Raj. A noted industrialist, philanthropist, and freedom fighter, he was also a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1926, he founded what grew into the Bajaj Group of companies.
Gandhiji came into my life because I went to him. I wanted to know him, and I must say that I was greatly benefited by that great soul.
– Jamnalal Bajaj, Industrialist
According to Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, he “renounced the titles of Honorary Magistrate and Rai Bahadur… [and] refused to obey the instructions of the British authorities.” He participated in the non-co-operation movement in 1921, the Nagpur Jhanda Satyagraha in 1923, the boycott of Simon Commission in 1929, the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, and the anti-war campaign in 1941. “Jamnalalji was adopted as the fifth son by Gandhiji. He was the alter ego of the Mahatma…”
Bajaj was not only a trenchant critic of the imperial rulers but also of the business community. “Whatever we have earned under British rule has not been earned by making our country or countrymen richer but by making our motherland and her children poorer… My fellow businessmen, our trade, industry and commerce will flourish a hundredfold by our participation in the great national endeavor for our swaraj [self-rule].”
Several prominent industrialists like G.D. Birla took his lead and became ardent supporters of the independence movement. In fact, he regarded himself as “ever in Gandhiji’s shadow.” Gandhi wrote to him in 1934, “God has given me many mentors and you are one of them.”
The admiration for each other was not restricted to saying nice things. Birla said about the Mahatma, “Whatever sums he asked from me he knew he would get because there was nothing that I would refuse him.” In a 1979 interview, he told India Today, “Gandhiji came into my life because I went to him. I wanted to know him, and I must say that I was greatly benefited by that great soul.”
Of all the leaders of national liberation movements, Gandhi was perhaps the only one who enjoyed such boundless support of the country’s biggest business house. The point is that Gandhi’s and the Congress’ ties with Indian businessmen were not secret; the British knew that the captains of industry were supporting the Congress, their biggest enemy. The businessmen supporting the GOP also knew that, by backing the Congress, they were rubbing the government the wrong way; yet, they did that.
Today, however, the corporate magnates just mind their own business. If they are so afraid of the government, you can imagine the plight of guys running small and medium enterprises.
But why is it that the industrialists before 1947 had the guts and gumption to take on the powers of the day, while their descendants are spineless wonders, perennially genuflecting to ministers? Was it that in those days tycoons were angels and now they are demons? Earlier, they were honest, truthful, and courageous, while now they are dishonest, mendacious, and cowardly?
That is certainly not the case; there has been no mutation of business persons from the angelic to the demonic. What has happened since Independence is that they have been effectively tamed by the Indian state. Over the years, several arms of the government have been strengthened with huge, often draconian, powers to keep industrialists on a leash. Many official and quasi-official bodies, regulators, etc., have come into being to make their obnoxious presence felt at any point in time. A variety of rules and regulations have been formulated and executed to maintain the vice-like grip around businesses, getting out of which either means greasing palms or circumvention involving sharp practice. This results in a situation that makes the businessman vulnerable vis-à-vis government. There is always the threat of a raid by any of the agencies.
Further, there are so many clearances, even in this supposedly post-licence-quota Raj, that he has to get the authorities at various levels. He knows that a slight protest, a public statement, or any other action on his part will earn the wrath of netas and babus; they will make his life miserable.
Unsurprisingly, India’s rank in the index of doing business ease is so low. The ease has indubitably declined since Independence. At the risk of sounding pro-British, we can say that the Indian businessman was freer on August 14, 1947, than he is today, 70 years after Independence.