What Modi and Bhagwat Mean By Saying the Main Lesson from COVID-19 is 'Self Reliance'

At a time when it is imperative that the state do much, much more on the economic front, asking villages and districts to be self-sufficient is only a way of evading the government's responsibilities.

Close on the heels of one another, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat recently gave a push to the idea of “self-reliance” or self-sufficiency, paradoxically at a time when the majority of Indians are looking for relief of various kinds. Given the influence they have the government, ruling party and numerous organisations comprising the Sangh parivar, besides policy, a detailed reading of their underlying messages is necessary.

Modi was first off the block on April 24 during his video interaction with sarpanches from across the country. Because the conference was also broadcast live over several platforms, as against his meetings with state chief ministers and opposition leaders, it was, for all purposes, an address to the people.

Bhagwat’s lecture, called online ‘Baudhik Varg’ (intellectual class)’, on April 26, too was not a restricted broadcast and was delivered on the same day as Modi’s Mann Ki Baat radio programme. The sarsanghchalak’s online sermon was his second talk in the times of COVID-19.

His first speech went live the morning after Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on March 24 and was limited to “dos and don’ts” for swayamsevaks – should they continue holding shakhas, how to keep the network connected and how the lockdown provided an opportunity to reach people with service activities. But it provided the basis for how the RSS network remains active at a time when those of most political parties are barely visible.

In contrast to his first lecture, Bhagwat’s second speech was an expansive socio-political take on the current crisis, the unfolding situation and the role of the RSS and its affiliates in the present and more importantly, in post-COVID-19 India. In this speech, Bhagwat, like always, used an oblique vocabulary where words have multiple meaning. As a consequence, his messages were at times either contrary to what was said or ambiguous.

Modi’s speech

After first asserting that Panchayati Raj Divas is always an opportunity for him to reaffirm his commitment to deliver ‘su-raj’ or good governance to villages, Modi asserted that the pandemic has imparted nai shiksha (new education) and sent a new message.

He said that the biggest message or lesson (sabak) of this experience is that we will have to become self-reliant (aatm-nirbhar). Thereafter, he elaborated on who he meant by ‘we’. “Villages, at their own level, have to be self-sufficient for their basic necessities, districts at their level, states have to manage primary needs on their own and this is the way the entire nation should become self-reliant. For our needs, we should never feel the need to turn to anyone – this has become absolutely necessary,” he said. There was only the slightest ambiguity that this was yet another task for people, although not superficial like clapping hands, banging plates or lighting lamps.

Expounding further, he said: In India these thoughts were always vibrant but now that the situation has altered, it has served a reminder to us – become self-sufficient. The role of panchayats, Modi said, was vital in this process because only strong and vibrant panchayats could provide a basis for self-sufficient villages.

Also Read: States Must Be Given More Ownership of India’s COVID-19 Containment Strategy

Bhagwat endorsed Modi’s assertion in totality. He too talked about lessons learnt over recent weeks and paraphrased the ideas of the prime minister after due reference. His added contention was that once this crisis is overcome and is in the past, Indians shall have to draw lessons from this experience and give a different thrust to the ongoing programme of national reconstruction.

In recent years, the phrase ‘national reconstruction’ (rashtriya punarnirman)has been used in conjunction with Modi’s project of ushering in ‘New India’. This project headlines utopian economic objectives by certain dates – a 5 trillion dollar economy by 2025, for example – but has more specific political objectives which remain implicit in the messaging. That apart, Bhagwat’s decision to preface the future agenda of the RSS cadre with Modi’s call for everyone to become self-reliant is also indicative of an altered hierarchy within the saffron fraternity.

The lockdown in Varanasi. Photo: PTI

Public exasperation

There is no debate that these are extraordinarily hard times, especially for the underprivileged, in rural as well as urban areas. Even the slightly better off, especially those running small business – job-givers in Modi’s lingua franca (MUDRA beneficiaries for instance) – will require handholding for an as yet indeterminate period.

In recent weeks, public exasperation over modest levels of state succour has been kept in check by carefully choreographed political showmanship in which people have been gently goaded, John F. Kennedy style, not to ask what the country can do for them because this is the time for even the most impoverished and marginalised to ask what they can do for the nation. Fear of epic proportions has been raised to prevent people from asking awkward questions,which are seen as being against the ’cause’.

As part of Modi’s effort to make people stakeholders in the government’s response to COVID-19 – and this nip any widespread protest – he declared in his Mann Ki Baat speech on April 26 that the response so far has been ‘people-driven’. This is a smart tactic for it gives ‘people’ an exaggerated notion of their role and spares the government for its policy failures.

Modi’s call for self-reliance at every administrative level is Act Two in this political play. The evocative idea of self-reliance is embedded in national consciousness, revives memories of the anti-colonial struggle and is interwoven with the idea of swadeshi. It is also part of the post-independence drive to achieve self-sufficiency through investments in infrastructure and industry with the state playing a major role via the public sector enterprises. In each of these endeavours, ‘sacrifice’ was common and this has been commended by Modi – he appreciated people for their tapasya and tyaag (penance/austerity/meditation and sacrifice) while coping with the current challenge.

In 2014, when Modi unveiled the ‘Make in India’ project, it evoked consternation among economic nationalists within the Sangh parivar, just as they had opposed FDI during the Vajpayee era and coined the slogan, ‘Computer chips, not potato chips’. Modi overcame resistance from within by arguing that ‘Make in India’ was nothing but swadeshi in a modern context. Echoing this argument, Bhagwat said in his online address that India will have to manufacture more products within the country, reduce dependence on foreign goods and merchandise and in situations when imports are essential, the government must ensure the terms are dictated by India.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the ‘Make In India’ week in Mumbai, India, February 13, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

An ill-timed call

Modi’s call for villages to become self-reliant is ill-timed because it is now imperative that the state step up its role. The economy will continue to teeter along till there is realisation in the PMO that the only path to recovery is on the back of a government reliant system. The idea of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ has to be put in cold storage till the next season and a more humane welfare state has to step out.

The idea of self-reliance for the nation vis-a-vis the global economic order cannot be imposed on the lowest units whose members are struggling for basic necessities. The amount of money the government has pledged so far for overcoming the setback to the economy and people’s lives is abysmally low when compared to many other nations.

Also Read: India’s Political Parties Must Realise Austerity Is No Answer to the COVID-19 Crisis

The sectors where maximum input is required – health, education and labour – are those where people in villages and districts are almost totally dependent on the government. State governments too are reliant on the Centre for resources.

The call for swadeshi as a form of anti-colonial expression or resistance and the Nehruvian articulation of that idea, aimed at elevating national pride by promoting across-the-board economic infrastructure were important for those specific periods. But this situation is completely different – people, industry and even the services sector have to be shepherded back to at least the pre-COVID-19 levels. By giving the message that the biggest lesson from the pandemic is for villages to become self-reliant, the Modi-Bhagwat duo are attempting to shirk responsibility and insulate themselves from the possible anger of people at the government’s indifference to their conditions.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.