“From today, all of us have to be vocal for the local produce. Not only will we buy local products but also help promote them,” he had also added. But will PM Modi’s ‘vocal for local’ call help Indians?
“We have not seen or heard of a crisis like this. We have to take precautions and not just fight this but carry on with our lives as well. We have always said that the 21st century is India’s. Now, it is not just a dream but our responsibility and the way to it is only one — self-reliance. Making India self-reliant is the only way to make the 21st century belong to India,” Modi said. “This calamity has brought an opportunity with it as well. When the pandemic broke, we had negligible production of PPE or N95 masks. Now we have 2 lakh PPEs and masks being produced in the country. The definition of self-sufficiency has changed in the global perspective,” he had stated. However, what he was saying, at least ideologically is quite an old wine in a new bottle. After all, we fought for our freedom more than seven decades on the plank of Swadeshi or self-made India and Modi’s slogan has also always been Make in India. So, we could call this a reiteration of the old Swadeshi ideology rather than something brand new.
Will ‘vocal for local’ help?
Self-reliance is a vision that has always been in line with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ideological thought process. Its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has since forever proclaimed the need for a ‘Swadeshi’ or home-grown model of economic development as a project close to their hearts and minds. However, lest Modi’s slogan on May 12 gets construed as signalling an insular turn, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was quick to clarify that Mission Swadeshi did not mean turning away from the world. “When the prime minister said self-reliant India,” she had said, “he did not want to make India an isolationist country. The intention is to take local brands and make them global. To have the capability to build enterprises that will help the world.”
What, then, is new about ‘atmnanirbhar’ or self-reliant India? It is actually part of a global trend, with leading nations like the United States actually closing their borders and turning economically nationalistic. India’s former principal ally and patron, Russia, the erstwhile mighty Soviet Union, was also almost forced to do this because of economic sanctions there. However, owing to their oil and other natural resources, they did pretty well despite being forced to decouple from the world economy. Iran, however, on the other hand, though also oil-producing, has ended up going in a downward spiral both economically and socially. The argument now that we can suddenly become ‘atmanirbhar’ and take on the world by turning self-sufficient is not convincing enough. We need, instead, a combination of the best from wherever it could be available when required, and making locally for our normal or regular needs. Indians shouldn’t actually be forced to settle for second or even third rate products or services just because they have the made-in-India tag. That could be merely another, perhaps a worse version, of the failed model of import substitution. In reality, what history proves over and over again is that there is no substitute for quality and competence be it locally made or imported from elsewhere. No amount less or more of ideological or cultural massaging can make this phenomenon go away.
With swadeshi and self-reliant almost evidently becoming the way forward that the government wants to take, numerous industrialists fear a Great Leap Backward. As Ramesh Vaswani, an industrial consultant, told India Today, “It symbolised a system of manufacturing that followed outdated and antiquated practices, governed by the heavy hand of bureaucracy. Self-reliance and the protectionist policies of the past saw industries turn inefficient both in terms of production and costs, making consumers suffer. It would be a non-starter if this government goes back to that.” Piyush Goyal, the Union minister of commerce and railways, however, has clarified that the government is not turning protectionist. Speaking at a university event soon after, he clarified, “Self-reliance is about working and engaging with the world from a position of strength. It’s about your own self-confidence, that you are not dependent or overly-dependent on the rest of the world. It’s about the confidence of the nation that you can produce quality products in a cost-effective manner, that you can compete with anybody in the world even with the disadvantages we face.”
What history says about being “swadeshi”?
If we can recall correctly, go back in time, our implication of what Swadeshi means is quite often a tad bit more than the knee-jerk ejection of foreign companies from the country. As George Fernandes had kicked out Coca-Cola and IBM from India in 1977, what happened after that? Both these companies not only survived but came back even bigger and better to India. Whereas the Janata government, which George Fernandes was a part of, bit the dust in just two years. History shows us that Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister nationalised several profit-making private banks. Today, most of those banks are neck-deep in trouble, often burdened with mismanagement, losses, and quite a lot of non-performing assets. The Narendra Modi government has been almost forced to merge and, at least partially, re-privatise them currently.
Modi’s principal secretary, Dr PK Mishra has, however, reiterated the fact that the prime minister takes decisions only after prior consideration and discussion — as he has been said to have done before announcing his self-reliant India plans. As Mishra said, “The basic distinction the prime minister wanted to make, as compared to other countries, was that we should go beyond relief and firefighting measures. That, with globalisation in retreat and rising protectionism, India should work towards bringing about major reform where we reduce our dependence on other nations and at the same time occupy space that may open up internationally for exports.”
‘Atmanirbhar’ the way forward?
Already we have begun seeing some of kind of self-reliance or ‘atmanirbharta’ amid the public and in certain decisions by the government. In line with PM Modi’s push for ‘local’ and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (self-reliant India)’, home minister Amit Shah on May 13 announced that canteens of the central paramilitary forces will only sell indigenous products starting June 1. Shah also appealed to the public to make maximum use of ‘swadeshi (locally made)’ products and encourage others to do the same. Using the local products, Shah assured, will also help make India self-reliant in the next five years. “This is not the time to sit back and watch but to turn the disaster (Covid-19 epidemic) into an opportunity. If all of us decide to use only local products, then India can be self- sufficient in five years,” Shah had said.
Another perfect example of supporting the PM’s ‘vocal for local’ plan, the government now has plans to export khadi masks to the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Mauritius. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is in full-force gearing up to supply khadi face masks to these and several European and Middle East countries, where Khadi has become quite popular over the past few years. These masks will be sold in these nations through India’s embassies. Terming this plan as a perfect example of the Prime Minister’s call to push indigenous products for use and export, KVIC Chairman Vinai Kumar Saxena said the popularity of Khadi fabric and other products has grown significantly across the globe in the recent years.