Home > Opinion > Columns > Opinion | Atmanirbhar: The new mantra for rewiring India

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi added another word to his growing lexicon to define his desired path to transform India: Atmanirbhar. Its translation into English means self-reliance. Clearly, it is the ideology adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to push transformation.

Those of us who learnt our economics from professors who have long passed away couldn’t help but remember the classroom discussions on “commanding heights", a phrase coined by the government led by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, which placed the public sector at the top of the food chain in the country’s pursuit of self-reliance.

But a more careful listen of Modi’s speech suggests a vastly different interpretation of the word ‘self-reliance’.

“India does not advocate self-centric arrangements when it comes to self-reliance," he said, before adding, “India’s progress has always been integral to the progress of the world. India’s goals and actions impact the global welfare. When India is free from open defecation, it has an impact on the image of the world. Be it TB (tuberculosis), malnutrition, polio, India’s campaigns have influenced the world."

Interpreting this further, the prime minister is not looking at an autarkic future for India; he is pragmatic enough to understand that even in a rapidly fragmenting world it is a bad idea. Instead of positioning India as part of the problem, the prime minister is arguing that the country is part of the solution for global welfare, a win-win: if India gains, so does the rest of the world.

And this, of course, is presaged on India fulfilling the expectations the rest of the world has from it—something that is possible only if the country acquires fundamental capabilities and provides for a basic material basis for the entire population.

Hints of this new thinking can be found in his recent address at the G-20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia, where he coined the idea of human-centric globalization.

“In many senses, globalization had failed us… it (G-20) had become a forum to balance competing individual interests rather than looking at the collective interests of all human kind, whether it was combating terrorism or fighting climate change, the human aspects of our globalization had been subsumed by economic and financial focus," the prime minister had said.

The is the idea of ‘Atmanirbhar’ articulated by Modi, and is best exemplified in the manner in which this government has effected a fundamental shift from entitlements to empowerment. Unlike the previous regime, the NDA has restricted entitlements to the poor (reflecting its idea of humanism). It has followed this up by committing to access to basic needs such as electricity, cooking gas, toilets and drinking water; its firm belief is that Indians know how to fish, but don’t have the means to do so. Exactly why the stimulus package rolled out in phases over the past five days has rejected the idea of ‘helicopter money’ for all. The only item free has been foodgrains, and even this has a sunset clause.

It is, for good or bad reasons, the assessment of the Union government that the short-run challenges can be resolved with selective hand-holding, improved liquidity conditions and a calibrated winding down of the lockdown norms to enable the economy to revive. At the same time it has, flowing from its ideology of ‘Atmanirbhar’, set out a very ambitious medium- to long-term big-ticket reform agenda for the country; if implemented, it will undoubtedly radically reset the country’s existing socio-economic paradigm.

No one can quarrel with the reform agenda—most of which has been proposed by several governments in the past. But there are many who legitimately question the government’s assumption on what it takes to kickstart an economy—especially sectors in the contact economy like aviation—which have been in shutdown mode for two months.

The downside risk is that if this bet goes sour, it could well hold the long-term reform agenda hostage. But then Modi, as we have seen in the past six years, is anything but risk-averse.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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