As a dedicated ‘Modi watcher’, I too heard the Prime Minister’s speech on 12 May with bated breath. This was the fourth of his Covid-19 addresses to the nation. The thought that passed through my mind as the speech neared its end, especially after the expected big bang announcement of the Rs 20 lakh crore package, was: “Can this man save India?”
I have commented on each of the previous three speeches. How was this one different? For one, Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked tired. Although he was trying to inspire and enthuse us in his usual fashion, the rhetoric was sombre rather than upbeat. Addressing a suffering nation, with the poorest of its poor brought to the brink of desperate privation, he seemed to know that ideology, slogans, and feel-good quotations from Sanskrit could not really solve our problems:
Friends, we have been hearing since the last century that the 21st century belongs to India…it seems that the 21st century is the century for India. This is not our dream, rather a responsibility for all of us.
I sensed that he was well-aware that simply asserting that the 21st century belongs to India to reassure a distressed nation wasn’t going to be enough. That is why he was quick to add, “But what should be our trajectory?” He answered by declaring: “The state of the world today teaches us that a self-reliant India (Atmanirbhar Bharat) is the only path. It is said in our scriptures – Eshah Panthah — that is, self-sufficient India.” But even as he wanted to fire us up, perhaps he knew that this was, at least ideologically, old wine in a new bottle.
After all, we fought for our freedom on the plank of Swadeshi or self-made India. Make in India, the economic slogan of PM Modi, is thus a restatement of the Swadeshi ideal, rather than a new formulation. Indeed, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, promoted by his ideological mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been around for a long time. Often, its idea of Swadeshi has attracted more flak for being bad economics however good it might sound ideologically.
The fact is that we live in a globalised world, where the possibilities of local production are considerably attenuated, especially in manufacturing, which involves high technology, multiple components, and differentiated expertise. Our brand of Swadeshi is often little more than the knee-jerk ejection of foreign companies—as George Fernandes notoriously kicked out Coca-Cola and IBM from India in 1977. What happened? Both the companies not only survived, but came back bigger to India; the Janata government, which George Fernandes was a part of, collapsed in two years. Earlier, Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister nationalised several profit-making private banks. Today, most of these banks are neck-deep in trouble, burdened with mismanagement, losses, and non-performing assets. The Modi government has been forced to merge and, at least partially, re-privatise them.
Both global and local
What, then, is new about ‘atmnanirbhar’ India? It is actually part of the contra-globalisation trend, with leading nations such as the United States actually closing their borders and turning economically nationalistic. Our former principal ally and patron, Russia, the erstwhile mighty Soviet Union, was forced to do this because of economic sanctions. But thanks to their oil and other natural resources, they did very well despite being forced to decouple from the world economy. Iran, on the other hand, though also oil-producing, has ended up going down both economically and socially. They seem, indeed, so inept that they’re “accidentally” shooting down not only passenger jets belonging to other countries, but also their own ships.
The argument that we can suddenly become world-beaters by turning self-sufficient is not convincing. We need, instead, a combination of the best from wherever it is available when required, and making locally for our normal needs. Indians shouldn’t be forced to settle for second or third rate products or services just because they have the made-in-India tag. That would be merely another, perhaps worse version, of the failed model of import substitution. Actually, what history proves over and over again is that there is no substitute for quality and competence. No amount of ideological or cultural massaging can make this go away.
Modi’s gamble can work
Finally, to the package itself. It is indeed impressive, even unprecedented. But will it do the trick? Will Modi’s 2020 Rs 20 lakh crore gamble pay off? It will if the economic reforms involving “land, labour, liquidity and laws” actually take off. These reforms were long overdue. Covid-19 only presented a good excuse to bring them out of the closet. India’s productive capacities must be unleashed before the lion called ‘Make in India’ can really roar. What’s the point of talking about ease of business when on the ground it is so hard to start a business or, worse, end it?
India can transform itself. Under Narendra Modi, this seems more possible than ever before. But only if we don’t succumb to our usual self-deceptions and duplicities. Inefficiency, incompetence, corruption, government control, false ideologies, and bad politics—all these add to a nation’s self-delusions and woes. Modi can save us only if, avoiding these pitfalls, he also leads us away from them. Unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who first saved his city from plague-infested rats, then led its children astray when he wasn’t paid as promised.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.