Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on May 12 sought to outline his vision for India in a post-coronavirus world order. It was a reiteration of his worldview and his faith in India’s Manifest Destiny, seeking validation in the crisis of the old order.
Mr. Modi’s pro-market supporters and his Left critics both understood him as an ally of global capitalism in 2014. Stephen Bannon, the ideologue of the Trump uprising in the U.S., termed Mr. Modi’s politics as anti-globalism — a point that he reiterated in a recent interview to an Indian channel. There are at least four discernible strands in Mr. Modi’s speech.
First, import substitution, an objective that drove nationalist economic policies in the 20th century, is back. Profit-driven globalisation had brought to the fore multiple insecurities of countries already when the pandemic struck, and it multiplied these fears manifold overnight. The biggest superpower’s struggles with procuring enough masks and paracetamol, for instance, has exposed its vulnerabilities. Self-reliance is suddenly not a bad idea again. Mr. Modi’s policies had already reflected this thinking earlier, but the new context has given him the courage to be “vocal about local”. In a crisis, only the local capacities can be useful.
Second, this is not a rejection of globalisation, but a call for a new form of globalisation. Mr. Modi said, from profit-driven to people-centric. He believes that India is the repository of such a wisdom, it’s the “Vishwa Guru”, teacher of the world. “The global brands of today were sometimes also very local like this….they became global from (being) local.” He elaborated further on India-led globalisation — on climate, on being helpful to other countries by offering them supplies in a time of crisis, led by the principle of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.
Third, the manner in which he brought China into the picture, without naming it. India’s self-reliance can only be at the cost of China. The current crisis could work to China’s advantage further if it is business as usual. His speech obliquely questioned the Chinese grip over global supply chains, and was an invitation to western partners such as the U.S. for closer partnerships. Whether he could continue with his hyper-nationalist policies while actively being allied with the West is an open question.
Fourth, his notion of reforms for self-reliance, not for globalisation. The word reform is an ambiguous one but widely used as a code for pro-capital measures. In 2016, in his keynote speech at 41st AGM of U.S. India Business Council (USIBC), in Washington DC, he explained his views on “reforms”. “I have said several times that my aim is to reform to transform. For me, reforms are those policies that transform the lives of ordinary citizens. In the last two years, we have taken a comprehensive package of reforms which go beyond mere economic reforms,” he said, adding that “policies to ensure that growth benefits the poor and the weaker sections” and “a frontal attack on corruption”, were reforms. On the same lines, on Tuesday, he counted as a reform, the government’s ability to make cash payments to the poorest. “Bold reforms to create a self-reliant India,” he said, will now be “broadened, giving a new height”. His list of reforms overlaps substantially with the demands of owners of capital — rational tax system, simple and clear rules-of-law, good infrastructure, etc. But the slant clearly is state support for the national capitalists. Read with the emphasis on local companies going global, it becomes clearer. Trade liberalisation is unlikely; in fact, there could be more protectionist measures.
Additionally, his speech narrows the gap between the government and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. “Small scale industries, farmers and labourers are the three pillars of the Indian economy. The emphasis of the PM’s speech was on these three,” said Saji Narayanan, president of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). The BMS has been scathingly critical of the changes in labour laws made by the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in recent days, but Mr. Narayanan does not expect anything similar coming from the Centre. “There are still advisors within the government who have different views, and we will wait for the details in new announcements. But the political vision in the PM’s speech is very encouraging,” he said. The Swadeshi segments within the Parivar are buoyant.
But this is not an easy act to pull off. India has severe limitations in capital, technology and human resources. Balancing the interests of capital and labour is not easy. But as a political statement, this could not have been clearer or stronger, though his vocal, free-market interpreters are unlikely to make Mr. Modi’s case this time.