Tuesday, February 7, 2023
HomeNational InterestMohan Bhagwat throws a challenge at Modi, revives 'Swadeshinomics' amid economic crisis

Mohan Bhagwat throws a challenge at Modi, revives ‘Swadeshinomics’ amid economic crisis

RSS’s economic philosophy laid out by Bhagwat is contrary to Modi's moves on FDI, trade, privatisation. But it's unlikely to prevail given Modi's political clout.

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The Sarsanghchalak, as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) calls its chief, makes his equivalent of the State of the Union address on Dussehra at the organisation’s headquarters in Nagpur. It always makes some news, but more now when the BJP is in power, in its second term, with a bigger majority than in the first. More so, when this government is delivering what are considered RSS’s “core concerns”: Scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir, Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

The chief for a decade now, Mohan Bhagwat made more news than usual this year because he waded into the issue of lynchings and his definition of who’s a Hindu, who’s an Indian, and are both necessarily synonymous. His arguments on both issues were contentious and drew much attention, some in criticism and, among his faithful, in appreciation. In the process, a very significant issue that he dwelt on at great length was missed. That’s what we are exploring more critically today.

It will be useful if you listened to just some parts of that 63-minute speech again. Just the first minute, and then about 14 minutes from 28:00 to 42:00, laying out his economic philosophy. The key lies in what comes in the very introductory seconds. He begins by mentioning important anniversaries of two most eminent and venerated Indians, Guru Nanak Dev (550th anniversary) and Mahatma Gandhi (150th). I do not believe many outside the RSS-BJP ecosystem, or those who follow and study Indian politics closely, would be so familiar with the third — Dattopant Thengadi — whose centenary year, he noted, would begin soon (10 November).

That name may not ring a bell. And certainly, he wasn’t somebody in the same league as Guru Nanak and Gandhi for anyone, not even the RSS. But he was important enough to find a mention alongside the other two. That it was no insignificant platitude or a passing flourish becomes evident once you hear the second part of those 14 minutes carefully.

Born in Wardha, not far from Nagpur, in 1920, Thengadi was one of the modern (post-Independence) founding fathers (it isn’t politically incorrect to use that here) of the RSS and the ideology of its political offspring in both its avatars, Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now. His area of interest was the economy. His thought has defined the economic worldview of the RSS more than any other, especially in the past 30 years, or generally when India began opening up its economy.

Also read: Why Indian economic tiger became puppy with tail between legs & what markets want Modi to do

Thengadi was a fellow traveller of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Both formed the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the labour arm of the RSS, together in Bhopal in 1955. They also fought bitterly and unforgivingly during the six years of the Vajpayee government. On the economy, Thengadi was the biggest thorn in his side, opposing all his decisions, especially the privatisation of PSUs, reduction of import tariffs and opening up to FDI.

At one point, he demanded the head of Yashwant Sinha, then leading the reform push as finance minister. Vajpayee resisted for a year, but eventually gave in. Thengadi had real power within the “sangathan” (organisation), as BJP/RSS people often describe themselves collectively. He also detested Arun Shourie. He likely celebrated when a Supreme Court judgment, harking back to old Socialist mindsets, ruled that it was mandatory to seek a parliamentary vote before selling any PSU. It stopped Shourie in his tracks. Important to note in today’s context that this happened exactly when the Vajpayee government had put the two big oil marketing companies, HPCL and BPCL, on the block.

Thengadi’s wasn’t a lone voice. His first child, BMS, protested against the Vajpayee reform era, often louder than the Left and the Congress-affiliated INTUC, and grew in strength. Meanwhile, he had formed two more powerful pressure groups: Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) in 1979 for farmers and Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which we are all more familiar with today, in 1991. Remember that year, 1991? When the big Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh reform was launched? SJM subsequently built a national voice and stature by opposing globalisation of trade, beginning with what was called the Dunkel Draft. K.N. Govindacharya, then the customary RSS man in the BJP as general secretary, was its most prominent spokesman.

By the end of Vajpayee’s tenure, relations between the two had deteriorated visibly. Often, when a modern new idea was mentioned, Vajpayee would say with a smirk something like, “arrey bhai, Thengadi ji ko kaun sambhalega… (who will manage Thengadi now). But it was in spite of that bitter fight that Vajpayee cleared Bt cotton seeds. In 16 years under Manmohan Singh and Modi, not one new seed has been cleared.

The fight ended in 2004. In May, Vajpayee lost power; later that year, on 14 October, Thengadi passed away. Probably with the satisfaction that the new UPA government, controlled by the Left, had dumped privatisation forthwith and launched a flurry of welfare schemes of just the kind he would have wanted.

Also read: The economy is India’s most potent weapon, but it’s losing its power

Now that we know more about Thengadi, who the Sarsanghchalak listed among eminences like Guru Nanak Dev and Mahatma Gandhi, we can translate the 14 minutes on the economy in Bhagwat’s annual sermon better.

Quick summary: There’s an economic crisis, but don’t make too much of it. Why paint the devil on the wall? GDP isn’t the only measure of growth. Crack down on corruption, but don’t victimise the innocent. We believe in Swadeshi, but doesn’t mean we say isolate yourselves. Trade is global but we should only buy what we cannot make and need. Why import even cow semen from a Brazilian hybrid developed with an Indian native? Use Swadeshi. He then talks about how exports are good, imports are bad, the RSS principle of frugality, buying only what you must, protecting what you make from competition, and so on.

Some of it isn’t the exact translation but my faithful interpretation. Then he comes to FDI. Again, paraphrased: Foreigners can invest but learn from countries which insist on one native board member with veto rights. So, foreigners own the shares but power is with our government. On the other hand, see what’s happening. Our (new) companies are seen to be owned and run by Indians, but once you look deeper, shareholding is with the Chinese. This is classical Thengadinomics.

It also runs contrary to many of the recent moves and promises of the Modi government, as it battles with India’s gravest economic downturn since 2008. It is opening more areas to FDI, negotiating new trade arrangements, especially with America, and the RCEP closer to the region. It has also announced massive privatisation as the mood-lifter for the economy and a plasma transfusion for the fisc. Both trade deals and PSU sales are being opposed by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, as are new agricultural, especially seed technologies.

On each front, the Modi government has made moves in the opposite direction: What would make Vajpayee smile and Thengadi frown. You know what, the biggest PSU put on the block now, BPCL, is exactly what Vajpayee had been thwarted from selling in 2003. We can also see it isn’t something Modi thought of just now. Buried in the 187 obsolete laws repealed in a 2016 mass-cull was also the 1976 Act passed under Indira Gandhi to nationalise MNC Burmah Shell and rename it BPCL. If it all went through unnoticed by the Left, Right and Centre in Parliament, ask your MPs why they were asleep or gossiping in Central Hall.

We can’t say as yet if, by holding forth on Swadeshi economics in such detail, Bhagwat is showing intent to fight back again. It is unlikely, given the power differential between Vajpayee and Modi. But not impossible. Our hope: An ideology has yet to be discovered which might even believe that the best way to get out of a hole, especially of the kind India’s economy has fallen into, is to keep digging deeper.

Also read: If anything can defeat Modi, it’s the economy


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  1. I have a confused whether it is HPCL OR BPCL which the Vajpayee Government wanted to sell. Please confirm

  2. Whether it is Bhagwat/Thengadi’s RSS, SJM , BKS or Sonia /Rahul’s NAC, the core philosophy is the same extreme left wing Marxism. Squeeze the working and reward the idle. Present PM needs no cue from Thengadi or Bhagwat because he himself is at the left of left as far as economic policy is concerned.

    • If RSS’s thinking is left of left, why librandus love left parties and hate RSS. Shekhar Gupta has not mentioned that Bhagwat has repeatedly mentioned that individuals in RSS are free to think and act independent of his own thinking. His Thengadi examples are also exaggerations as usual. RSS has wide range of thinking covering far right to far left i.e. RSS represents the reality of diversity of thinking on the ground. RSS is criticized as part of a bigger and perpetual propaganda of librandus, the lot most detached from the ground reality.

      • ‘Librandus ‘ hate RSS, because they receive no patronage from it, as they used to before. This has nothing to do with ideology. Ideology is the same across the political spectrum, milk the taxpayers to run loss making businesses, control economic freedom, handout freebies and subsidies, harass honest businesses and common man. In short the same extreme left wing policies of last 70 years. Same Same with a different name.

  3. “Surendra: Mr. Modi just came back from the Howdy Modi tamasha in the US where he praised Trump who is about to be impeached. You call that ” who is deftly and very creditably handling international relations”. Now that is truly wonderful. No wonder Modi keeps winning elections. Day is night. Losing is winning in the world of believers.

  4. Till a few years back, I did not think often about Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The last Englishman to rule India, he made an immense contribution to the creation of modern India and moved into the history books. Americans do not spend the day talking about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It is only recently when a campaign of calumny has started, seeking to discredit him personally and the virtues / worldview he represented that one realises how much all of us owe to him. IIM A has made my son’s life. Consider the state of Bharat Varsh if these obscurantist forces had captured a nascent nation.

    • Nehru completely neglected healthcare and primary education of the vast masses of India. His disdain for private enterprise and people’s initiatives was legendary. His neglect of agriculture and land reforms , in a largely agrarian country was beyond criminal. Of course his rule did benefit a few, especially those who managed to make it into India’s elite institutions, got funded by tax pay money and then left for abroad because Nehru’s India had no use for their talents and education. Those who stayed back became part of the obstructionist elite (bureaucracy, judiciary, politicians, academics, feudal chiefs, police etc.) that ensured their less fortunate brethren would forever stagnate in an India lagging sub Saharan Africa in HDI scores.

      • Wow! A long list of problems, all to the credit of Nehru. Gosh. He sure had extraordinary talent for screwing up things. Apparently he was so stupid that he left behind a shattered India that is still limping along because of his mistakes.

        • Good one, Rajiv. I think the Gang will not let even Nehru’s ghost live in peace! How do illiterates understand the value of education and science – outside of fake degrees, of course? Fellows have messed up the economy and the society, are corrupt but continue to pretend being saints. These fellows will take us back to 12th century.
          An Indian who Benefited from Nehru’s Vision like millions more!

          • Sorry Anil. They’ll take us back to the 8th century. That is when ‘Indian’ culture’s (or should I call it Hindu culture) decline started.

            These guys keep talking about the Vedas. Have they heard about the Upanishads? I doubt it.

            Some if the points raised by Vish are valid. Nehru, like all humans, made his mistakes. But to ascribe all modern Indian ills to him is crass stupidity.

    • Well said Ashok uncle. Nehruji was the greatest man alive and ever to live. He created management concepts and IIM to spread them to the masses. He also was the man behind many of the engineering and technological advances. his Book discovery of technology is one of the seeds of all Engineering colleges in India including IITs. Till Rajivji invented computers and mobile technology Nehrusninventions were remembered. This Gomutra gang is hiding all the great things of Nehruji using Rajivjis inventions computers and mobile phones

  5. Mr Thengadi may have been a great man, although today is the first time one has heard his name. Some fads on diet and dress are harmless. Talking about Sanskrit with nostalgia is okay. Not the economy. A subcontinent sized country, with the largest pool of people who are poor, lagging sub Saharan Africa in HDI scores, cannot afford to become an amalgam of North Korea, Myanmar and Cuba. I personally do not find the Vedas the fount of all human wisdom, but that is another debate. This is now a second term administration with the economy in a tailspin. Let it become ideology agnostic, do all that it takes to pull the country out of the ditch it has fallen into. The worldview Mr Thengadi represented has nothing valuable to offer. Issue a postage stamp in his honour, name one of our newly remodel led railway stations after him.

    • Liberals are naive beyond belief. The RSS aims to bring the whole of India under its ambit. They won’t be satisfied with small change like issuing postage stamps. This is all out war that wooly-headed Indian jholawalas (including those at The Print) can only lose.

      • Beliefs grounded in reality have a place. If they are grounded in a make belief world, no use to any one who is suffering today. More often than not RSS spreads meaningless ideas that have no place in our lives. RSS will remove corruption through Electoral bonds!!!
        I heard the supreme leader say that we knew head transplants. Where is that knowledge today.? We were rich. Where are the riches? We definitely enriching a small set of fat cats at the cost of poor? we were looted? can we get that wealth now from the countries that looted us? The supreme leader holds events and hugs politicians in those very countries. Gandhi Ji knew nothing. What we do now? He is gone, unfortunately, we can’t even lynch him, because we killed him.
        Let us get to work, let the politicians not ruin our lives and we end up being good for nothing WhatsApp trained self-proclaimed owners of glorious past. Past that these politicians can not bring back, as they are just too self-serving and power hungry. Look at the language they speak – arrogance combined with ignorance.

    • What ” economy in a tailspin” in India are you talking about? There is no economy in tailspin, says Modi’s cabinet minister Ravi Shankar Prasad! “There is no economic slowdown’, said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Saturday, citing the earnings of three blockbuster movies. While addressing a press conference, Prasad said that on October 2, three movies collectively earned Rs 120 crore.”

    • Well said Ashok. Instead of searching for k owledge in Vedas which is non existent we should search in Quran which have lot of economics written . Nehruji wanted that and allowed minority rights. Indiraji removed Vedic reference from constitution and made India secular. Rajivji performed Shilanyas. Matron Soniaji went to Vatican and Rahuilji went to kailash. Priyankaji married Vadra.

      • India doesn’t need the Vedas, nor the Bible nor the Quran. They were written for other times. Sure all of them have some value as they deal with human nature. But that’s all. Using them to run the modern world is insane.

        • Well said, Rajiv. Religious texts are about human nature and form the foundations for our conduct. For sure, they carry a lot of wisdom. But if we hide behind that wisdom to abuse others, we are condemned to build a miserable society. Our Gang seems to be hell bent on doing that.

  6. I think Mohan Bhagwat’s speech left enough space for maneuvering for Modi to carry on with economic reforms, if Modi is indeed serious about them. Abolishing/removing/changing different laws and policies that impose costs (corruption, delay, other inefficiencies and bottlenecks etc ) on doing business in India cannot be objected by Swadeshi platform. What is wrong in demanding that to begin with, drastically reduce taxes and various bottlenecks to make Indian manufacturing world competitive so that we are able to cap and reduce and finally stop imports of labor intensive items from China which we have been manufacturing before? This will fit into RSS idea of Swadeshi- of making the country economically strong. Multi brand retail can be kept aside for a while till Indian companies occupy that space. This will be a Swadeshi thought. But allow mobiles to be manufactured by Chinese companies in India as we donot have the required technology for manufacturing critical components. This is within the boundaries of Bhagwat’s speech. Today, the issue is not of opposition for reforms but the lack of coherent set of policy announcements in a one shot from Modi which will lay out the milestones and the sequencing with a clear understanding of consequences on fiscal side, if we get into a large fiscal deficit levels year after year. It is very surprising that Modi who showed courage to remove article 370 ( and will also do UCC and build Ram temple soon) and who is deftly and very creditably handling international relations, has no political courage to announce that he will not reduce any social sector commitments come what may but he will rebuild the basic structure of economy on a sound, self sustaining footing for India to become a top power in next 20 years by initiating a set of reforms.. His legacy will indeed be that he has removed the cobwebs of past economic mismanagement and not Art 370 or UCC or Ram Temple or even one country, one election. After all, year after year, economic issues will continue to trouble us and this is equally true for any country, whether advanced economies from G-8 countries, or for China or for India but what we expect from Modi as the PM, is a fundamental reform of how we manage our economy. This is a political statement. Tactical actions are done by FM. So Shekhar, forget that part of Bhagwat’s speech relating to Swadeshi- he is not standing in the way of reforms. It is Modi who inexplicably is not showing the political courage for it!

  7. Shekhar Gupta alias “Shekhu” doesn’t have expertise in economic matters but ironically, writes on them nevertheless. In today’s world, you can’t have cake and eat it too. You cannot protect some items from competition and at the same time, increase exports. Indian apparel industry is suffering because rivals have FTAs with importing countries. In order to export apparel, India would have to decrease tariffs on imports. To increase exports, India would have to enter RCEP with some conditions. So Shekhu, you should explain on these lines.

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