New Delhi: The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, economic affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has targeted NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant for promoting e-pharmacies of a few “foreign-funded companies” through the Aarogya Setu app, which has been developed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
The SJM has requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal to restrain Kant from promoting “illegal functioning of foreign-funded e-medicine without legal ambit”.
But this is hardly the first time RSS affiliates have targeted the 1980 batch IAS officer — the SJM and labour union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) have also protested against other top NITI Aayog officials, such as vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar and his predecessor Arvind Panagariya.
The Aarogya Setu app has been devised by NITI Aayog for contact tracing of possible Covid-19 patients, but also has a provision called Aarogya Mitr, which connects users to online medical consultations, home lab tests and e-pharmacies.
Kant is heading the empowered group set up to coordinate with private players, international organisations and NGOs for the Covid-19 response, which is also supposed to augment production of personal protective equipment, masks, medicines and ventilators. But he has repeatedly been targeted by the SJM.
SJM co-convener Ashwani Mahajan told ThePrint: “We have no objection to Aarogya Setu, but we have serious objections that a government app is promoting four e-pharmacies run by foreign companies. We want a level-playing field for domestic retailers and other e-commerce companies, and the matter is sub judice. How can Amitabh Kant promote illegal functioning of e-pharmacies in the country? Crores of Indians have downloaded this app and are using it.”
A functionary of the Laghu Udyog Bharati, the RSS affiliate for small industries, added: “Amitabh Kant is the face of the NITI Aayog, who is shaping economic policies. He is one of the PM’s trusted men. He has a bigger clout than several ministers, and has the PM’s ear. We have no personal enmity against Amitabh Kant, but Indian interests should be protected. Indian corporates and MSMEs should get priority over foreign companies. Sometimes, we fear he promotes foreign companies more.”
‘Amitabh Kant is promoting foreign interests’
In the last month or so, the empowered group headed by Kant has held hundreds of meetings with industry, international NGOs and foreign ambassadors to plug the holes in India’s Covid response.
At the beginning of the Covid crisis, India was importing PPE kits from other countries, but after a push by the Kant-headed group, Indian domestic players are making two lakh kits every day.
But the SJM feels that Kant could be batting for foreign players, as it has also accused him of promoting the interests of retail giant Amazon over local businesses in the past.
In January this year, when Amazon chief Jeff Bezos visited India, there was a huge controversy, and neither PM Modi nor Commerce Minister Goyal met him. Kant, however, shared Bezos’ statement committing to export 10 billion ‘Make in India’ goods by 2025.
At the time, SJM’s Mahajan had lashed out at Kant, accusing him of being “sympathetic” to Amazon when crores of small traders have been hit hard by the deep discounts and “rule flouting” by Amazon.
“We are perturbed by your unending love for Amazon, given the scenario that crores of small traders are on the streets, persecuted by deep discounts and flouting rules. The Enforcement Directorate and the Competition Commission are inquiring about Amazon’s wrongdoing,” he said.
After Goyal asserted that Amazon’s fresh investment of $1 billion was not a favour to India, Mahajan backed Goyal, saying he was right in “showing Amazon its place”, but also asked him to “enlighten Amitabh Kant, who is deeply impressed by the company”.
Kant did not respond to ThePrint’s request for a comment for this report. But a NITI Aayog official who did not want to be named said: “It is actually a war to shape the economic policy. We visualise policy on different parameters, and sometimes we accommodate (RSS affiliates’) concerns, but we live in a globalised world. We can’t shut our doors to others. We can be protectionist, but not over-protectionist in our policies.”
Not the only official on SJM’s radar
It’s not just Amitabh Kant that the SJM has targeted — it has also had its run-ins with other senior NITI Aayog officials like vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar and his predecessor, Arvind Panagariya.
Since the NITI Aayog was constituted on 1 January 2015, the SJM has criticised its recommendations on GM crops, Chinese investment in Indian companies, permission to the Walmart-Flipkart deal, and the strategic sale of profit-making PSUs.
The NITI Aayog and the SJM had a war of words in January 2018 when Rajiv Kumar asked the SJM to define its usage of the term “swadeshi economics” on the matter of generating more jobs and high growth. But SJM had hit back, saying it didn’t need sermons from others on ‘swadeshi’ policies.
Mahajan had asked Kumar at the time: “Is there any valid research that FDI is increasing employment, especially in multi-brand retail? In fact, NITI Aayog is giving sermons without any research. We have proof of retailers being shut down, their income being destroyed, and millions of jobs being lost, but NITI Aayog, which is advocating FDI in retail, has no data. It should come out with figures.”
The SJM and the BMS had, in December 2019, opposed the NITI Aayog report on public sector enterprises, which recommended the strategic sale of five state-run enterprises, including Bharat Petroleum, CONCOR and the Shipping Corporation of India. However, at its national assembly session in Haridwar, SJM demanded the NITI Aayog report be junked, and a fresh assessment be carried out on disinvestment.
The SJM also opposed the sale of Air India according to a plan devised by the NITI Aayog. The SJM contended that every country has a national carrier and Air India is a national asset, which requires restructuring and professional management, not sale. Air India debts, it said, are due to bad management.
It said debt restructuring can revive Air India, but alleged that the problem is that NITI Aayog is home to a “few consultants who are sitting there to promote the interests of a few business houses” and make policies to “fulfil that gamplan”, Mahajan said in December 2019.
Opposition in Panagariya’s tenure
When Panagariya served as NITI Aayog vice-chairman, between 2015 and 2017, the SJM had opposed the Aayog’s recommendation on genetically modified crops. In its report, the NITI Aayog had said there is no scientific basis for the opinion that GM crops are bad for India, after the Supreme Court had imposed a moratorium on them. The SJM insists GM crops will destroy India agriculture.
The SJM had organised a two-day conference on the functioning of the NITI Aayog and its mandate, in which it alleged that the body was promoting interests of certain corporates, and was working against the preamble of the cabinet note announcing its formation.
“It is against organic farming; it is only there to promote large giant multinationals,” the RSS affiliate had said.
In 2017, the SJM conducted an “audit” on 23 reports of the NITI Aayog with the help of 10 experts, and found them “hollow”. Mahajan had said at the time that the reports “would not even qualify as M.Phil. dissertations, and that many of them were against nationalistic commitments and political stances taken by the PM.
Govt has accommodated concerns
The government has, time and again, obliged the SJM by taking its viewpoint into consideration, and accommodating its suggestions into economic policy.
After a campaign by SJM, BMS and Laghu Udyog Bharati, the government hiked the import duty on more than 100 Chinese products in the 2020 budget.
It has withdrawn from the proposed international free trade agreement RCEP, led by ASEAN countries, after the Sangh Parivar’s objections to it.
Other moves where the government has accepted the SJM and other RSS-affiliated bodies’ objections include probes into the Walmart-Flipkart deal, and blocking China and other countries from making automatic investment into Indian companies through the FDI route.