From the Viewsroom

India’s rocky romance with self-reliance

B Baskar | Updated on September 22, 2020 Published on September 22, 2020

Will Athmanirbhar Bharat rule the roost for the next decade?

Self-reliance repackaged as ‘Athmanirbhar Bharat’ seems to be back on the ideological agenda with a vengeance. Self-reliance, often seen as a relic of Nehruvian socialism, was happily jettisoned after 1991 when India went in for wholesale financial and trade liberalisation and gave the licence-permit raj a quiet burial. So from 1991, reforms with a dose of welfarism seem to have been the reigning economic ideology. But the pandemic seems to be turning the clock back.

That reforms and globalisation would have winners and losers was known to India at least since 2004. That was the year, the NDA government under PM AB Vajpayee, basking under the ‘India Shinning’ campaign, was expected to retain power with ease. But to everyone’s surprise the NDA bit the dust and the UPA went on to rule for the next 10 years. Reformist Chief Minister and media darling Chandrababu Naidu too lost that year in AP would remain in the wilderness for the next decade.

The UPA government, at least in its first term, put in place rights-based entitlement schemes (MGNREGA) without eschewing market-based reforms. Surprisingly, the Modi government too adopted a similar policy — where reforms such as GST, ‘ease of doing business’ and Insolvency Code were balanced with pro-poor welfare schemes such as Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat and Ujwala Yojana. But Covid seemed to have dealt a blow to this consensus which can be termed as ‘reforms with Indian characteristics’. The pandemic has shown up the vulnerability of the global economy’s reliance on China, with countries scrambling to move businesses out of China with governments even giving generous subsidies.

So we now have the Modi government’s ‘Athmanirbhartha’, which is a heady mix of Nehruvian self-reliance, red carpet for foreign investment, support for select domestic industrialists and a good dose of BJP-style nationalism. How economists theorise this return to self-reliance will be interesting. But more crucially, will ‘Athmanirbhartha’ be the reigning ideology even after the pandemic is behind us?

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Published on September 22, 2020
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