Niti Aayog vice chairman Arvind Panagariya’s sudden decision to quit and return to teaching in the US has been partly blamed on the incessant criticism of recommendations of the planning body by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the economic wing of the RSS. But Ashwani Mahajan, National Co-Convenor of SJM, says dissent must be given its due in a democracy and that SJM has always questioned governments irrespective of the party in power.
Excerpts from a conversation with ThePrint’s Deputy Editor Anubhuti Vishnoi:
On Niti Aayog and Arvind Panagariya
I don’t want to make a person-specific comment. Ours is a principled position on issues. We analysed the Niti Aayog’s working so far and held consultations with many economists and experts. All of us felt that there was a lot lacking.
There is no agenda against the Niti Aayog. It may have done some good things as well, like in the case of the land leasing report, which we fully supported as a move in national interest. But on major issues, they failed to take an impartial and objective approach.
It started with their GM (genetically modified crop) report, which is the most unscientific of reports. There were questions raised about just how this think-tank was formulating and suggesting policies. Were they being made for corporates and at the expense of public interest? How can there be cooperative federalism or a bottom-up approach as envisaged, if they go out and support GM crops when every single state is saying no to it?
We also raised questions about the Niti Aayog’s position on the pricing of drugs, which seems to favour pharmaceutical companies rather than the people of the country. In May, we wrote to the PM on how the Aayog was trying to dismantle the very system of drug price regulation.
On Panagariya’s sudden exit and the SJM connection
If someone raises questions, answers should be given, not resignations. I have met Prof. Panagariya personally on two occasions and he is very kind and courteous, and also promised to look at the issues raised. Now he has resigned, so there is nothing to say about that.
On Swadeshi Jagran Manch constantly pressuring the Modi government
It is in our DNA to keep working and to make people aware of the threats of globalisation. We firmly believe that policy should be guided by public interest, and not by corporate influences and interests. While we know that the government has to look at the investment climate, it should remember that the ultimate aim is to make people’s lives better.
Sometimes, the government does listen to us, like in case of international trade agreements, where they are working within difficult parameters to uphold national interest. We appreciate that. The government may have good intentions but sometimes corporate interests, like in the case of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, may influence things. Our duty is to caution against such instances.
In a democratic system everyone has a role, the government, civil organisations and grass roots associations. In a democracy, if there is a dissent, you must listen to that view and give it due credit.
On the SJM’s criticism of the UPA government
Definitely. Our working or stand has never changed under any government. In case of Bt brinjal, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch attended several meetings and workshops organised by (former) minister Jairam Ramesh on the issue.
We engaged with other political parties including BJP and the JD(U) on many issues. In the case of the WTO (World Trade Organisation), we engaged with (former) commerce minister Anand Sharma and requested for interventions through Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley after we shared our viewpoint with them. Now people wonder why we are airing a dissenting view under the Modi government, but the fact is we always do so and under every government.
On the call to boycott Chinese goods and companies due to the Doklam standoff
I am sorry to say that the previous government took a position of non-confrontation with China and kept engaging with them economically, accepting Chinese goods without curbs and without imposing any anti-dumping duty. The result was a huge trade imbalance. That has to be corrected. We are not just asking people to boycott Chinese goods. We are also asking the government to bring clear standards, so that sub-standard and toxic Chinese goods are not allowed into the country. This government is trying to do so, unlike the previous one.
The Chinese have imposed several restrictions on Indian companies. Why shouldn’t we? Trade works on the principle of reciprocity. Just like Prof. Panagariya saying that he has resigned to save his job at Columbia is not being seen as an acceptable reason, that the Indian government should continue (to sign) contracts with Chinese companies in spite of non-reciprocity is also not acceptable reasoning to us.