Swaminathan Gurumurthy, editor of the Tamil weekly Thuglak, is one of India’s most influential commentators on economics and politics. Speaking to Suman K Jha, he explains the essence and substance of ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ and why Prime Minister Narendra Modi waited for an opportune moment to unveil his vision. Gurumurthy also discusses the emerging post-Covid world order and India’s place in it. Excerpts:
Suman K Jha: Does the Narendra Modi Government’s thrust on ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ and ‘self-reliance’ have anything in common with the Swadeshi vision that you and the RSS espouse?
S Gurumurthy: For answering this, it’s necessary to dig into the past. Narendra Modi’s idea of being ‘Aatmanirbhar’—which means self-reliant—is, in my view, his personal conviction also. For any idea to emerge, a leader has to choose the time to unveil his plan. That is what Modi has done. A leader’s personal conviction alone cannot be the basis for state action. The state is an institution which has to function in a certain domestic and global ecosystem. In the contemporary situation, more than ever before, the global ecosystem is important for national policy agenda.
Even though it’s not a very good example, it may help one understand how policy changes emerge if we look at how socialism came into the Indian socio-economic and political discourse and became a state policy. Socialism was the personal conviction of Jawaharlal Nehru, but it took a full eight years—from 1947 to 1955—for the Congress to declare India a socialist economy through the famous Avadi resolution of the AICC. This, despite the fact that as far back as 1931, at the Karachi Session, the Congress had set a socialist pattern of development as the goal for India.
At Avadi, in 1955, the socialist pattern was presented as the goal for the party.
Why do you think Nehru waited till 1955? The answer is that he was looking for the global balance of power, heavily tilted in favour of free market, to balance out. The US had formed Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1955, and the Soviet Union signed the Warsaw Pact in the same year to balance it.
India, being a democracy, did not want to be part of the Soviet bloc—the USSR was not a democracy. But it did not want to be part of the US bloc either. So, at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, seeds were laid for the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Panchsheel policy was adopted there.
It was only when the global balance of power provided the opportunity that Nehru made India join the global mainstream socialism, but at the same time, remained non-aligned. This was, however, all posturing and this is why a year later, Parliament in 1956 adopted socialist pattern of development as the official agenda of the government. It was only in 1956 that industrial licensing was brought in and “permit quota licensing raj” commenced. Nehru brought Nicholas Kaldor as the tax adviser and brought in amendments to tax laws with the introduction of Capital Gain Tax and Wealth Tax, Estate Duty, Gift Tax, and Expenditure Tax.
‘Swadeshi, as a concept, demands a lot of discipline which is not easy to build. But Aatmabirbhar, which Modi spoke of, is inspired by Swadeshi as a philosophy but is not limited by the rigour of Swadeshi as an ideology. Modi understands the difference between philosophy and ideology’
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Why I mention all this is because even Nehru had to mould the people to the socialist idea. His total hold over the party, which had total hold over the country, helped in instituting the socialist model. He created the ecosystem for the acceptance of the idea of socialism, and it got deepened to an extent that to deviate from it was considered opposing the poor and supporting the rich. This caused a political suicide for the Grand Alliance in the 1971 elections.
Aatmanirbhar or Self-Reliance is as much an old idea as it is new because it is a dynamic concept. Because (being) Aatmanirbhar is the goal and preparations are needed for that. Without preparing the people and the state, it is not possible to bring about policy shifts.
Once, leftist economist Ashok Mitra and I had a profound exchange on communism and Swadeshi in the early 1990s. Our respective views were published in Seminar. Mitra’s argument was that for Swadeshi to succeed, “we have to produce Swadeshi behaviour and culture”, which, he said, “we have not succeeded as it demanded lot of discipline”. I said that the same thing happened to communism as communist parties could not produce communist behaviour and culture as that demanded a lot of discipline.
So Swadeshi, as a concept, demands a lot of discipline which is not easy to build. But Aatmabirbhar, which Modi spoke of, is inspired by Swadeshi as a philosophy but is not limited by the rigour of Swadeshi as an ideology. Modi understands the difference between philosophy and ideology. He spoke about the difference during his first visit to the US for the UN session and in his address to the Council on Foreign Relations.
What is the difference? Ideology presumes it is the only view that is right and the other view is wrong and so no dialogue is possible. Philosophy presumes there can be another view and offers scope for dialogue. Modi’s Swadeshi is philosophical, which is flexible, and not an ideology, which, like communism, is inflexible. Only because he does not want his Aatmanirbhar to be equated with Swadeshi ideology that he has refrained from using the term Swadeshi. But Aatmanirbhar is a product of the Swadeshi philosophy.
Modi had laid seeds for Aatmabirbhar in the NITI Aayog resolution of his Cabinet dated January 2nd, 2015, in which he had defined his Government’s approach. The resolution said that NITI Aayog should endeavour for what will work in and for India as no model from outside India can be transplanted to India. The resolution commanded NITI Aayog to work for a Bharatiya model of development. It is against this background that his call for Aatmanirbhar has to be viewed.
Modi found the global ecosystem conducive to announcing his agenda. Aatmanirbhar is a goal for a nation, but in a given situation, it also becomes a model because of the dynamics of global changes—thanks to the post-Covid world which many, including someone like Henry Kissinger, believe will be far different, if not totally different, from the pre-Covid world.
Modi has sensed that the global order is changing. He must have information about it too. So his announcement must not be seen as just a vision but as a mission. I would not regard it as just an expression of his conviction. He must have been working on it for years after he became Prime Minister, but waited for his and India’s stature to rise to such levels that India would be heard by the world as much as India used to hear the world.
He also waited for the global ecosystem to change so that the changes he has in mind are in line with emerging global thinking and not isolating India from the world—an idea that Swadeshi in the sense of self-sufficiency does. He has carefully used the word “Self Reliance” and not “Self Sufficiency”—which is seen as the common goal of socialism and Swadeshi.
Do you think the current thrust of the Government could mean a return to pre-1991 days?
If it is remembered, history will guide the future. Globalisation was an ambitious project based on an assumption which history doesn’t own or follow. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man proclaimed the final victory of the Western institutions of democracy and free market over the Rest and commanded the Rest to accept the West as the best for itself, assuring that there would be no conflict in future ‘as all other ideologies are dead’.
Globalisation and the World Trade Organization (WTO) were founded on the excitement of the West after it won the Cold War and presumed that the world would be eternally led by Western values and institutions. Having postulated that, the West went against its own thesis by admitting China—which had neither democracy nor free market—into the WTO and globalisation. China took advantage of both and did not introduce either. It was Donald Trump who realised that there cannot be, as the West believed before him, one country with two systems and how the imbalance between transparent nations and non-transparent systems will erode the economic strength of transparent nations.
By a totally fortuitous development—Covid-19—the difference between transparent democracies and non-transparent systems has got exposed. This in my view has pronounced the death of the WTO and globalisation as we understand and experience them today. As a new world order is emerging, 1991 will be recalled for how overexcited the West was as it went overboard to institutionalise a global order which was not sustainable.
In 1991, India was a beggar. The 1998 Pokharan blasts changed the grammar of India’s geopolitics forever. Today, it is a power. Even if India wants, it cannot go back to the pre-1991 situation. Pre-1991 socialism was never India’s. It was as imported as the West-centric globalisation.
India has to play the global game now, which is consistent with its own position in the world order.
Do you think the present Covid-19 crisis will mark an end to globalisation in its present form?
In my view, yes. In its present form, globalisation was always unsustainable. Now it has been proved to be. A new Cold War will emerge between transparent democratic nations and the non-transparent dictatorships. We will not get back to the previous Cold war with firmed alliances led by US on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other.
In the new world order, who will align where will be known only in due course. It may even be an Ayaram Gayaram kind of global politics with nations jumping from one side to the other. But the world order, as Kissinger, who made the West accept China without attempting to reform itself, has himself said, will change, and post-Covid, the world will never be the same as before. Kissinger ignored the warnings of Richard Nixon not to over-commit to China, which Kissinger did to get out of the Vietnam mess and to separate Russia and China. His contextual compulsion committed the US to China and kept it committed till Trump came to power.
Globalisation, as we have seen in the last 25 years, was based on trust between nations. It will not last as there is a collapse of trust.
How relevant is Dattopant Thengadi’s Third Way today?
I have discussed with Dattopant Thengadi his Third Way. Had he been alive today, he would have revised it as his hypothesis of Third Way was postulated juxtaposing capitalism and communism. Thengadiji rightly predicted the collapse of communism and capitalism. But the collapse of communism was structural, whereas the collapse of capitalism will be change of form and structure as capitalism lives on the selfishness of humans. We have to build on Thengadiji’s hypothesis and rework his thesis. A lot of work needs to be done as the India Thengadiji saw in global affairs is different from the one today. But the paradigm which Thengadiji has captured in Third Way is the operating paradigm of India.
But I have argued with Thengadiji that capitalism and communism are competing ideas, and what distinguishes the two is the element of profit. Capitalism would try working only for profit and communism will try working at any cost. Unionisation was the product of capitalism and out of that was born communism. Consequently, with the decline of capitalism, unionisation—which was his core area of work—will also undergo a huge change. I told him that just as communism is a mirror of globalisation, the union, too, is the mirror-reflection of capitalism. Though we never agreed, our discussions continued till his demise.
Do you think there needs to be a national consensus on economic vision so that there is continuity in policies?
Economic consensus builds not just by discourse but by the influence of the ecosystem which brought the ruling party and Opposition together in India in 1991 and again even the Communists and the Congress together in 2004 in UPA rule. It broke not on economic policies but on the nuclear pact with the US, which was not economics but geopolitics.
In India, I have observed that every change will have an undisclosed element of continuity—the share of the change may be more, but continuity will be there. That is the beauty of Indian evolution—which never allowed or tolerated any attempt at revolution.
How do you look at the labour reforms that the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have undertaken?
I feel that the word reform is too often used for all changes. All these are policy changes, some changes are undoing the reforms of the past, not paradigm shifts or permanent changes. Another government may come and undo it in a democracy. Only a paradigm shift is a permanent change. Reform is really a word of the Church post-Enlightenment which does not apply to the history of India.