The word ‘atmanirbhar‘ (self-reliance) made a sizzling debut a few weeks back. But this new star word, unlike others, is a lambi race ka ghoda for its lineage. After ‘kolaveri di‘ it is the first word of “native” origin that has managed to criss-cross India in no time. The hegemony of “non-native” English words doing so in the past is finally broken.
“Atmanirbhar’s” English cousin – “self reliance” – in fact, first made a debut in the 1950s and ran for a good two decades before it was relaunched in 1970s. Its re-launch also had a decent run for another two decades before it lost to “liberalisation”. Though “atmanirbhar” has the same lineage, it is groomed by a different political family. This family has ensured that “Atmanirbhar’s” launch is more macho, more native and with a sidekick “Local pe Vocal” to accompany it. All this was missing with its English cousin.
“Atamnirbhar’s” sure shot fame lies in its vagueness. After all, words like “migrants” are handicapped with specificity. But, “Atmanirbhar” can be equally effective to convey a point to a person seeking casual employment or to a company seeking a new vendor.
The secret sauce of “Atmanirbhar’s” fame lies in the visualisation ability of the user. “Atmanirbharta” consumers may start “DIY hair-cuts” instead of visiting a neighbourhood saloon, poking holes in the efforts to revive the consumption cycle post-COVID. They may demand “Atmarnirbhar” toothpaste from the kirana store.
The kirana owner, who stopped keeping Patanjali products for a while now because of payment delays, will then have a harrowing time to explain to them that Ved Shakti by Colgate, Ayush by HUL and DantKanti by Patanjali are all made in India, by Indians using Indian water and Indian electricity. He may use his part timeshare trading experience to recommend that they should buy Ved Shakti or Ayush because their stocks are listed, and they can earn back their expenditure via. dividends whereas there is no visibility on Patanajali’s shareholding or listing plans. But his recommendation may be shot down under the combined power of “Atmanirbhar” and “Local pe Vocal”. In this commotion, they may settle for Dabur’s Lal as a compromise because it is both “native” and dividend paying.
But, in this loss of face, the Kirana store owner may seek his revenge by selling lentils to them from the batch that was imported into the country because India’s domestic procuring cycle goofed up buying it from the Indian farmers in the previous season.
After receiving such feedback, brands may engage in an“Atmanirbharta” audit. “Native” brands may say that barring a few “critical” raw materials that are imported, they are “Atmanirbhar”. Non-native brands, on the other hand, may state that with the exception of repatriation of dividend and license fees that is a fraction of sales, they are as “Atmanirbhar” as any native brand. These claims may pose a moral dilemma to the “Atmanirbharta” seeking consumer while buying underwear when he confronts a local brandshowcasing “non-native” fashion model or an expensive car and sees a non-native luxury car showcasing his favourite “native” film actor.
Foreign investors may start to seek covenants for investment in “native” companies
Funds may toy with the idea of launching an “Atmanirbharta” index fund. Mandarins may realise that India is in fact already “Atamnirbhar” in most of the product categories. Seeking “Atmanirbharta” in most businesses is nothing but a zero-sum game. In promoting one type of “Atmanirbharta” they will merely doing so at the cost of some other “native” cluster.
But, India is not “Atmaniarbhar” in raw material supplies needed for quite a few products like the palm oil that is needed to manufacture soap, creams, frozen desserts etc. It does not matter if “Atmanirbharta” seeking consumer buys a “native” brand or a “non-native” brand of frozen dessert because while both were manufactured in India, the palm oil that was used in both most likely came from Malaysia.
On this scandalous realisation, will the “Atmanirbhar” fan give up eating frozen dessert? But, his “Atmanirbharta” zest will be severely tested in the case of jewelry because whether it is a branded store chain or a neighbourhood. Jewelers both sell jewelry made in Indian workshops using gold that was imported into the country. He will then face a tough call of conscious to give up his “Gold” addiction to practice “Atmanirbharta” via the abdication route.
The mandarins will then realise the need to narrow the use of Atmanirbharta in the context of securing supplies of strategic raw materials or intermediary products like semi-conductors, technologies, specialised products like lithium for EV batteries, defence and healthcare equipment and away from the glare of general public. They will then realise that during the COVID-19 crisis India’s import dependence was in the matters of healthcare, technology and related areas in intermediary functions. They will realise that India also has many of its own advantages that are available for bilateral trade discussions and appreciate that Atmanirbharta is a mirage. No country can address all its needs in-house and need other countries as friends and bi-lateral trade partners that becomes the basis for diplomacy.
They will then recognise the urgency to bring Atmanirbharta back within the confines of file notes rather than to expose it to the imagination of general public. Perhaps they will then appreciate that “Subtlety” or “Nuance” are the needed sidekick of Atmanirbharta.
The overt use of Atmanirbharta achieves little except that it creates restrictive trade practices that yield monopolistic outcome for sub-optimality. What to sell and what to buy are better left to the market and consumer to decide in this complex web of interdependency. State’s role should be to create parity and rule of law for all types of trade opportunities to seek markets.Surely, the state can buffet it with barriers to protect special interest groups and needs through covert means.
But by the time this realisation kicks in, Retailers would have launched Atmanirbhar range of products, while struggling to define it. “Non-Atmanirbhar” brands and consumers would have been trolled by the Atmanirbhar fan base via “Non-Atmanirbhar” digital platforms.
With so much excitement in store, this new star word offers an exciting joy ride for us voyeurs. Enjoy the flick.
Ankur Bisen is Sr. VP, Technopak Advisors & Author of WASTED. He can be reached on Twitter @AnkurBisen1.