Swadeshi parade

Published : Mar 03, 2001 00:00 IST

The Hindutva version of swadeshi is put on show at the Swadeshi Industrial Fair in Coimbatore. The contradictions within the Sangh Parivar on the issue, however, remain.

SWADESHI, associated in the popular imagination with the spirit of the Indian freedom movement and Gandhiji, is back in business, but in a new avatar. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), widely seen as being committed to the core philosophy of Hindut va, has been driving the swadeshi bandwagon this time around.

But the irony is evident. Look at the two contradictory postures adopted by members of the Sangh Parivar on issues related to the economic liberalisation programme. On the one hand, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is implementing the liberalisation pro gramme - in what is being referred to as the second stage of reforms. However, the SJM, the Sangh Parivar's economic wing of sorts, has been calling for a resistance to the "West-centric" reforms.

The SJM organised a Swadeshi Industrial Fair in Coimbatore from February 16 to 21. The SJM's proximity to the BJP-led government at the Centre, and its ideological closeness to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, brought the top brass of the political leade rship to the Fair. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee inaugurated the Fair, indicating the importance that the Parivar places on the SJM's concept of swadeshi and its role as an ideological standard-bearer of the RSS' core philosophy of Indian and Hindu nationalism. The Union Minister for Rural Development M. Venkaiah Naidu, and Minister for Information Technology and Parliamentary Affairs Pramod Mahajan attended. Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi participated in the valedicto ry on February 21. The representatives of the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) who attended the fair included Union Minister for Environment and Forests T.R. Baalu and general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) Vaiko.

The Fair was organised by the Centre for Bharatiya Marketing and Development (CBMD) "a forum of the SJM", according to the website of the Fair (https://www.swadeshifairtn.org). Apart from promoting "Bharat's efforts in self-reliance through promotion of i ndigenous industry", it "aims to strengthen, promote and help national economy to grow within the overall framework of Bharatiya needs and value system by conducting research and formulating policies, organising melas, fairs and exhibitions." The CBMD ha s conducted similar fairs in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Shimla. The first one, held in New Delhi in January 1999, was also inaugurated by Vajpayee.

The SJM managed to rope in the Coimbatore District Small Scale Industries Association (CODISSIA), the major organisation representing small manufacturers in the region, as a co-sponsor of the Fair, which was held at a sprawling exhibition centre construc ted recently. Although the organisers had announced on the eve of the fair that the achievements of Indian private industry - big and small, traditional and modern - would be displayed at the Fair, a striking aspect was the presence of a large number of public sector undertakings (PSUs).

Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), widely perceived to be at the receiving end of the power sector reforms since 1991, was present. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Indian Oil Corporation Ltd., again perceived to be victims of the reforms in the petroleum sector, also occupied large stalls. The ailing HMT, which has suffered as a result of lower tariffs on capital goods imports, was present. The Life Insurance Corporation and United India Assurance, facing a serious threat to their very existen ce following the initiatives taken by the BJP-led government in 2000 to privatise the insurance sector, were also at the Fair. Bank of India and the State Bank of India occupied stalls. Several Union Ministries and departments also displayed their achiev ements. The Union Ministries of Information and Broadcasting and Rural Development, and the Department of Industries were among those present.

A local industrialist told Frontline: "Is it not ironic that while these public sector units are on the verge of sale, they are being paraded here?" Remarks were heard also about the ruling political establishment's "duality". While the government is proceeding with its privatisation drive, another ideological arm of the Parivar is talking about protecting national interest. The implication of these adverse comments was obvious: Were these public sector units being compelled to participate in the Fair?

On the eve of the Fair, SJM Convener S. Gurumurthy told a press conference in Chennai that a diverse range of Indian companies would attend the Fair. "There is an Indian angle to the Indian economy," he said, "reflecting the specific and unique character istics of India, not understood by the intelligentsia." Gurumurthy said that the growth of small manufacturing, in places such as Tirupur, Ludhiana, and Rajkot "was possible only because of the talents of the local people". Gurumurthy stressed that the s uccess of these ventures, started by "local communities such as Goundars and Nadars in Tamil Nadu, and Kutchis and Patels in Gujarat, did not have to depend on state support."

The SJM promised to unfold every facet of Indian industry at the Fair on a single platform for the first time. Gurumurthy claimed that even bigger organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of C ommerce and Industry (FICCI) had been unable to do this. The Centre for Policy Studies, aligned to the SJM, put on show the Hindutva view on economic matters.

Coimbatore has been going through an industrial crisis in the last few years. The textile industry, the backbone of the city's economy, has been hit (Frontline, February 27, 1999). The textile machinery industries, and the foundries that depend on this industry, and the pump industry have all been affected. Almost every walk of life has felt the impact of the economic slump. Factories and mills have been either closed down or have downsized. Workers have been laid-off in thousands and industrial wages have fallen. Hundreds of small and medium-size businesses in the city, once proudly held out as examples of the "entrepreneurial spirit", have been extinguished. Almost every section of society ties the steep and relentless slide in the last few ye ars to the policies of economic liberalisation initiated in November 1991. So, was the SJM's choice of Coimbatore as the venue for the Fair just a chance occurrence, or was it part of a design?

It is evident that the economic reforms have taken their toll on large swathes of the economy. Several aspects of the reform programme, notably those relating to import tariffs and deregulation, have exposed small and medium industries to unprecedented c ompetition from imports. The removal of the remaining quantitative restrictions (QRs) by March 31 can only worsen the situation. The accelerated implementation of the rules of the international trading regime under the auspices of the World Trade Organis ation (WTO) compounds matters. Moreover, the financial sector reforms and the delinking of financial institutions from the task of developmental-lending threatens to force these units out of the organised credit market.

Hence, the economic reforms threaten to jeopardise large sections of the middle layer of society - small industrial producers, petty traders and small businesses, peasants with small holdings, the unemployed educated middle class in rural and urban India . Critics of the Sangh Parivar have pointed out that the modern variant of swadeshi banks on the primal fears of these affected sections. They argue that the Right-wing, historically opposed to state presence in industry and a votary of private enterpris e, is trying to woo these sections, collectively labelled as the petty bourgeoisie.

Significantly, the SJM was established soon after the economic reforms unrolled. In January 1992 it launched its "struggle against economic imperialism". In 1993 it initiated a campaign against the Dunkel Draft, which laid the foundation for the WTO in i ts present form. In 1995 it started its campaign against Enron's Dabhol power project. The SJM claims that its "strong agitation" against the deal resulted in a "massive victory" because the newly-elected BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra was force d to withdraw the deal. However, the SJM later gave the clearance for the project.

The SJM claims that its version of swadeshi is based on an "India-first approach". It alleges that the pursuit of socialist ideals in the half century after Independence has been a disaster. However, it is also critical of "free market globalisation". It blames the "Anglo-Saxon worldview", adopted by the Indian "intellectuals and elites", for the state of affairs. So, what solution does the SJM suggest for the Indian economy and society?

"The word swadeshi," claims the SJM, "is the political, economic and civilisational life of India rooted in Indian nationalism." The SJM laments that "the fall-out of the West-centric thrust" has resulted in "individualism, fragmentation of families, com munities and societies." The "mindless pursuit of materialism" and the "erosion of national identities" have been other consequences. In order to reverse globalisation, the SJM advocates the establishment of an "international anti-WTO lobby". It calls fo r "a war that must be fought if we are to retain our market as well as grab other markets." The SJM also demands the Indian withdrawal from the WTO because "India has surrendered a part of its self-governance in economic matters".

The Hall of Information, put on display by the Centre for Policy Studies at the Fair, provided some clues about the SJM's version of nationalism, its views on globalisation and its attitude to industrialisation. A panel here, titled "Our Metropolitan Eli te Remains Hostile", pointed out that the "English-educated metropolitan elite thinks of town-based entrepreneurs, anchored in their families and communities, as obstacles in progress." It describes how the same elite, instead of encouraging local enterp rise in the fireworks industry in Sivakasi, has "been looking for ways of reversing the success story". It alleges that the "elite have for years been running a concerted battle against the Sivakasi fireworks industry, alleging that it thrives on child l abour." The panel claims that the campaign against the Sivakasi manufacturers has not stopped even after they "have conclusively proved that no children are employed in their units" (Frontline, May 12, 2000).

Observers of the Sangh Parivar have pointed out that Right-wing ideologies, at any given point in time, tend to portray some sections as aliens or outsiders. This could take the form of the minorities or, in the matter of the economic ideology, the "metr opolitan elite" or the "intelligentsia" who are presented as being alien to the "Indian ethos".

Karuna Manoharan, who runs a small unit manufacturing precision tools in Coimbatore, is against the RSS' concept of swadeshi. He told Frontline that the SJM, despite its talk of swadeshi, "is trying to paper the fault lines in traditional Indian a nd Hindu society." He says that Indian industries have failed to meet the challenge of globalisation because "caste and kinship ties, rather than professional business practices, have held sway over their operations". This, he said, is reflected even in the labour recruitment policies of Indian companies. "Caste and communal loyalties, rather than competence, appear to be more important in these companies," he said. Manoharan also alleged that the Hindutva perception of national industry as a homogeneou s entity is flawed. For instance, he points out the contradictions between small and big industry. "The small-big relationship in India has been largely a parasitic one, by which bigger companies bleed the smaller companies to death," he said.

The swadeshi project of the SJM is seen as an attempt by the Sangh Parivar to keep its political and social options open in the long term. Its mobilisation of the victims of the reform process, while expressing helplessness despite enjoying access to sta te power, is seen as an attempt to gather dissent under its own banner. Critics of the Sangh Parivar allege that by doing so the Parivar hopes to prevent dissent from gathering on a progressive platform that is not confined by a narrow and sectarian bran d of nationalism.

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