While it may be possible to reject the idea of Atmanirbhar Bharat, before doing so, it would be a good idea to examine it as a concept. It may be recalled that, for instance, Rabindranath Tagore took a similar stand concerning Mahatma Gandhi’s dramatic call for the boycott of foreign goods. However, Gandhi saw the call as a motivator for self-reliance, as did many other national leaders of the time. This debate is available in an edited volume titled Truth Called Them Differently: Tagore-Gandhi Controversy.
The call by Prime Minister Narendra Modi provides an opportunity to scrutinize the idea of self-reliance — atmanirbharta — by examining it along with similar concepts. Three are available. First is a reverberating call given by Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, namely, “Swaraj is my birthright and I will have it.” This content is inserted in the form of a slogan, which in modern India has become as aphoristic as the Upanishadic statement, Aham Brahmasmi Tat Tvam Asi, in classical India. Tilak’s powerful call spread like wildfire across India, infusing energy into enslaved Indians. It sought to ‘turn’ restive Indians into fighters for self-rule.
The second concept is found in a talk delivered by a famous philosopher, Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya, titled Swaraj in Ideas. This talk focused on a particular aspect of colonialism — “slavery of the spirit” — that had the potential to outwear political swaraj. He made a strong plea for ‘Swaraj in ideas’.
In addition to a slogan and a talk, the concept of swaraj is also available, this time, in the form of a dialogue in M.K. Gandhi’s book, Hind Swaraj. The dialogue points out how the modernity that was implemented by the British in India was not only bad for India but also equally bad for the British, thus turning the perpetrator of oppression into a co-victim. This profound view is also a smart move against the oppressor as it took the debate to the enemy camp.
These three that converge on swaraj can provide a scaffold for the concept of Atmanirbhar Bharat. Instead of taking these as manuals to follow, I want to convert them into symbols — lighthouses — to understand the present context and evaluate the concept of Atmanirbhar Bharat from the points of view of necessity, desirability and feasibility. This academic engagement is required as the recent call is an immediate response to both a public health challenge and a military emergency involving China. This can save it from remaining at an emotional realm and begin to communicate it to those who produce, distribute and consume locally.
Capital and technology have created a disproportion between supply and demand, production and consumption, in the developed countries. To solve the problem of overproduction, these countries have arm-twisted the developing nations to participate in what is called globalization. Besides, in the case of India, its participation in this process involved the economic crisis faced by India during the P.V. Narasimha Rao government. Consequently, there is an increase in trade, employment and wealth-generation. The WTO agreements, the formation of the European Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative are examples of this phenomenon. However, slowly, one has begun to see the fissures developing in this movement — for instance, in the form of Brexit.
Reminiscent of the bubonic plague, which originated from Yunnan, China, during the 1890s that swung Tilak into action, it is the pandemic, again from China, that has woken up countries, including India. It has made them realize how much they are dependent for supplies on China and the impending dangers of this dependence. When India was struggling hard to deal with the pandemic, it was threatened by China at the border. These twin problems led to the call for Atmanirbhar Bharat.
The prime minister’s call for Atmanirbhar Bharat emphasized ‘resilience’ and the need to incorporate ‘ease of living’ along with ‘ease of doing business’. Here, it is essential to recognize that these ideas, in my understanding, are opposed to each other. And they are positioned not one in place of another but one in conjunction with the other. This conjunction is problematic, as ‘ease of doing business’ will create a dent in ‘ease of living’. Dealing with these is as tricky as squaring a circle as they belong to two opposed ways of life. One needs to put a lot of effort to deal with this problem. You need the talent of a creative genius like Leonardo da Vinci to combine these two as demonstrated by him in his famous drawing, Vitruvian Man, where the navel is correctly at the centre of the circle and genitals at the centre of the square.
Similarly, there is a need to study the geometry of the ease of living and identify the exact location of its centre. Likewise, there is a need to determine the centre of the ease of doing business. Interestingly, the straight lines in the square represent progress, whereas the circle symbolizes contentment. And then come up with a vision resembling the Vitruvian Man where the incompatible square and circle are incorporated aesthetically. Work and health can be balanced.
At the macro level, the discussion can begin by regarding the idea of dependence on and borrowing from the other. Globalization thrives on removing restrictions on reliance and borrowing. Both of these, it must, however, be admitted are not wrong per se. They can be positively used by reflecting on why depend, whom to depend on, how much to depend on and for how long as well as by asking why borrow, from whom to borrow, how much to borrow and one’s capacity to repay. This reflection will enable borrowers to get a realistic assessment of their condition and make the borrowing meaningful.
The return towards ease of living can be made inclusive and egalitarian by sharing resources with the vulnerable sections of our population as well as their upliftment along health lines. This will help us overcome our internal weaknesses and begin to convert them into strengths. This can save the concept of Atmanirbhar Bharat from relapsing into regression or look like a defeat. Instead, it can be seen as transforming the adversary into an enabler.
The author teaches philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati