PM Narendra Modi at 74th session of the UN General Assembly | PTI
File photo | PM Narendra Modi | PTI
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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.


Also read: With his speech, Modi did what Xi and Trump couldn’t — made India greater than the pandemic


Old wine

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.


Also read: Vocal for local: Can India afford self-reliance or is it a slogan to please swadeshi lobby?


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.


Also read: Covid showed dependence on China poses all kinds of risks. For India, it’s even greater


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.

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17 Comments Share Your Views

17 COMMENTS

  1. PM didn’t mention that we need to go 100% local. Where ever possible we should give priority to local. Hope you will understand.

  2. Major problem to make in India 1. We r not belive in the present status of any human being we r examine people by his father’s or family background then their work or ability also lack of mental liberty is a major cause till we can’t follow the rule of vedanta we can’t achive this milestone .

  3. Let us speak sense. Modiji has several plans. Dont misunderstand. Vocal is one aspect. So wait and there is also hidden agenda. And await details for later. So pl dont expect to know everything at one time. If at all you know something you can email to pmo office. Welcome. Tank you.

  4. For a country reeling under the Covid-19 outbreak, just the number of 20 lakh crore brought some smiles, although the optimism was short-lived. Everyone knows it is not possible to raise the huge sum. So, the fiscal stimulus is converted into liquidity stimulus. It is just like this: If you beg to a person A for assistance knowing fully well that he doesn’t have means to help you, he will simply direct you to go to C and ask for help. This is what government has done. It has asked the banking industry to provide the liquidity stimulus by lending to various sectors. This can undoubtedly produce some positive results. But should we burden our banking industry in this manner? Are we repeating the mistakes made while dealing with the 2008 crisis? Better that the government should raise some resources by borrowing and spend it liberally. Higher government expenditure will provide the stimulus not higher level of lending by banks , which can create more NPAs in future.
    As regards being self-reliant, it is just a platitude nothing more. However, India should always stay clear from China and its ambitious designs. Why we are importing heavily from China is a mystery. We should restrain unwarranted imports from China and make these products in India.

  5. Fully agree with the author. The cleanup of the laws mentioned, should have been don in the time of UPA 1/ UPA2. It didn’t happen as they did not have the stomach or the courage to see it through. Modi should have done it in his first term itself. The laws pertaining to land acquisition, labour and statutory permissions are a huge barrier for starting anything, and needs to be rewritten. The local Industrialists and entrepreneurs will be enthused to start new businesses. The international players can come later, once they are convinced.
    Modi should ignore the left leaning rif raf, including BMS in this matter.

  6. Hi dear respected sir madam iam tailor self iam doing work at home there is no work from two months i have three children please help me from atmanirbhar youjnaa

    • I don’t know whether they are doing anything or not but I can understand it clearly that if they were not able to manage the situation when there were negligible corona cases then they can’t manage it ever. So now they are actually let people die on thier own due to thier own failure. The worst has to come. We will have to pay price of not choosing educated and leaders with some intellect.
      By seeing the condition sometimes I think about the future of this country.

  7. The challenge is how to
    Get package implemented.Bankers are no less bureaucrats.Can FMensure that Rs3lakhs. Crore gets disbursed by end September.it is possible by fixing Regionwise targets and getting fortnightly feedback.Only when funds reach enterprises they move forward.PM looked tired .That May be because PMO instead of confining to polices and ideas is also trying to Micro manage.Functions of leadership and Manager are entirely different.Intentions and scales are good.But proof of pudding lies in implementation.

  8. The man who wears a Movado watch, drives in a BMW, sports Maybach sunglasses and writes with a Mont Blanc now advises his countrymen to go local. Hypocrisy died a thousand deaths. Welcome back protectionism and import substitution. The more things change the more they remain the same.

  9. “Can this man save India?” A non-sequitur if ever there was one. Look at his record: demonetization, failure to provide 10m new jobs in good times, Rafale scandal, PSU privatization failures, the lockdown disaster resulting in thousands of deaths far greater than that caused by Covid…

    • Do you think that our leaders are actually leaders. Let me tell you reality. In India majority you can say at least 90 percent of population is complete dumb ass who don’t care what is going around they just care about themselves. They don’t know whom they are choosing as a leader what will be the effect if they will choose a wrong leader. They are so dumb that if someone would say let’s start war against another country they will become overly excited for a war without even thinking a little bit about consequences. If someone will say don’t use china product they will just say everyone this same thing without even knowing anything about that. They are so dumb that they have chosen a chaiwala as our prime minister who was not able to control a bare minimum cases of corona even when the lockdown was implemented at very early stage and now we are going to reach over 1 lakh cases even in this lockdown and now he is talking about giving relaxation on lockdown when there is maximum chances of exponential rise in cases.
      This is just one aspect if you will go deep you will realise that as an Indian citizen we live a pathetic life deprived of even the basic facilites like pollution free environment. We eat garbage, which we don’t know which chemicals are used to prepare them. There is no checking on anything, we don’t even know that the milk which we are drinking is actually milk or just a chemically processed solution. And let me tell you one thing we will be the first one to face the consequences of nature, I don’t know but there may be a time when temperature in India will reach to 70-80 degree Celsius and no one will get to know they will just die when this will happen. Even now so many people die of summer heat and the dumbest thing is that we don’t consider it even a problem. We think this is normal to die with this summer heat.

  10. Thoughtful column. 2. Look at a map of India’s neighbours to the east. [ To the west, Allah bestowed plentiful hydrocarbons on the faithful. That bounty is running its course. MBS’s Vision 2030 is faltering. ] Starting from Japan in 1945 and Bangladesh most recently, each country has integrated economically with the global economy, removed poverty, become a success story. Barring the odd holdout like Myanmar. If India is looking for models of self sufficiency to emulate, we might have to go to Cuba which, like Kerala, has a good public healthcare system, also some nice beaches. 3. Join RCEP. That suggestion contains within it a wealth of ideas on what India needs to do for these haunting images that we have seen in the last two months not to be repeated in future. Else, forget Vishwaguru. We will be increasingly seen as a country that had so much going for it but threw it all away.

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