Dec 11, 2020 • 5M

The journalist who told Narendra Modi that business people were afraid of him and he was damaging confidence

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The Editor of the world’s most respected business newspaper, who met Narendra Modi twice in six years, says his economic leadership has “surprised me a little bit”, and wonders if the Indian prime minister has aides who are not afraid to tell him when he is wrong—and, equally, if Modi has it in him to listen when they do.

Lionel Barber, the Editor-in-Chief of Financial Times and from 2005-2020, met Modi in 2013 when he was Gujarat chief minister, and then again in 2019 when he had been PM for five years. He says he noticed a palpable reluctance among captains of Indian industry to speak about the BJP-led government and its policies.

On J-POD, the journalism podcast, Barber, 65, says he even told Modi about the climate of fear hanging over corporatedom.

“I did it mention it in our meeting that some of the business people were afraid of him and he was damaging confidence. There was a sort of chilling factor. I was really astonished when I went to Mumbai and saw a number of business people how they wouldn’t talk openly about the government and the government’s policies.”

Lionel Barber, whose new book The Powerful and the Damned has just been published by Penguin in India, says what might be happening in Vladimir Putin’s Russia may well happening in India, albeit to a smaller degree.

All strong leaders should be asked, do they have people who will say you are making a mistake. And are they listening to them? Because if you have such an aura, and you are such a strong man, you don’t necessarily take the advice. Or, people are afraid of speaking up. That’s happened in Russia, and it might be happening to a degree, in India.

The best leaders have strong people around them.”

Let the record show that in his long career as an FT foreign correspondent and editor, Lionel Barber has met and interviewed, among others, Barack Obama and Tony Blair; Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe; Donald Trump and Wen Jiaobao.

The dramatic personae in Barber’s book lists 7 prime ministers and 4 presidents, 3 members of royalty, and 12 business heads.

He says the most impressive character in his book is former US secretary of state, James A. Baker. And the most damned is former British prime minister David Cameron, “for Brexit, which was a bad idea”.

After his second meeting with Narendra Modi in April last year (with FT’s South Asia bureau chief Amy Kazmin in tow), Lionel Barber records that there was “still an edge of menace about the man who, lest we forget, had his finger on a nuclear button”.

Modi’s second term, he says in the book, was marked by a “weaker economy and rising religious intolerance”.

Barber now says he wasn’t suggesting that Modi might do something maddening with the allusion to the nuclear button.

“I didn’t want to suggest in any way that he could fire off a nuclear weapon. I was just reminding my global readership that India does possess nuclear weapons. It is in a very special club, and that confers a certain responsibility. It is also next to another country, Pakistan, that also has nuclear weapons. So, this is a dangerous area of the world.”

But Lionel Barber does admit that the demonetisation of high-denomination currency notes in November 2016, hailed by the chartered accountant turned RBI board member S. Gurumurthy as “Financial Pokhran”, demonstrated “a certain capriciousness”. (Pokhran in Rajasthan is the site of India’s nuclear tests.)

“Demonetisation may have had a good idea as a goal, of getting the money that was hidden in the economy exposed, but the consequences were much more dramatic and much more negative than the Modi government realised.” 

Listen to the full J-POD with Lionel Barber

America is coming back

“But it’s not going to be the same. It is going to have to work with its allies, but it’s also got to realise that it is working with another superpower-in-waiting or a superpower which is almost there, which is China.”

Globalisation’s return?

“The election of Joe Biden as US President is not a restoration (of globalisation) but he is stopping the slump; he is stopping the retreat into nationalism that we have seen in the last five years."

China after COVID

“China’s snapback has been incredible compared to every other country. Questions will be asked of the origins of the Coronavirus, and maybe the One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) is a bit of an overstretch too.”

Sino-Indian relations

“With India’s border tension with China, it’s never going to be a totally easy relationship between the two countries, particularly as China expands its power westwards.”

Globalisation has been good

“The free movement of goods, services and capital has been a tremendous boon if you think of the millions lifted out of poverty in China and in India. Immigration was a big cause of the backlash against globalisation, particularly in Europe.”

Photograph: courtesy The Guardian

Screenshot: courtesy The powerful and the damned/Penguin

Also read: When Lionel Barber met Narendra Modi

Listen to previous episodes of J-POD: Buzzsprout

Listen to Lionel Barber’s new podcast: What next?

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