Global Capital v. Swadeshi: BJP and Economic Nationalism
It is well known that the BJP was an open critic of the economic liberalization of the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government in 1991. The basis for the critique was an ethico- economic idea that was championed by the Congress itself in the early 20th century: Swadeshi. Literally meaning “domestic” or “of one’s own land”, the idea was a call against imperial goods’ import by the British Raj, and as part of the Swadeshi Movement. Its constant invocation in the articulation of anti-imperialism, however, has not been restricted to the Congress and other Gandhians. In fact, Hindu Nationalism has openly adopted Swadeshi into its ideological framework and has used it for its own agendas.
Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a subset of the Sangh Parivar, is an organization founded for principally promoting this Swadeshi ethic and economic model. As the website of SJM proclaims, the goal of such (Hindu nationalist) Swadeshi is the creation of a just world order based on integral and holistic life vision [and so],
- Ensuring national security, unity and integrity.
- Building a self-reliant nation
- Nourishment of Bharatiya cultural values.
- Preservation of natural wealth.
- Balanced development of all regions and the society as a whole.
This brief list provides to us an example of some of the key facets of what Swadeshi means in a Hindu nationalist sense. But above all, it gives to us an idea of how the use of Swadeshi in itself lends a characteristic (at times liberal) modernity to the Hindu Nationalist project: it is a project that aims to benefit all of society; the idea of holistic (economic) development finds itself as the central motive. This ‘liberalism’ may not always be the same as that of a more progressive and rights-based liberalism, but as a larger intellectual structure, it is used as a source of legitimization of the economic views of Hindu Nationalists in public discourse.
To complicate matters a bit, the Modi government (and the BJP/NDA governments before this one) has never quite spoken openly of its Swadeshi mission. Au contraire, whenever in government, the BJP has rarely ever attempted to curb the inflow of foreign capital. The recent decision to allow Foreign Direct Investment in key sectors of the economy – retail and civil aviation, most notably – is completely at odds with the ideological basis of the BJP’s Economic thought.
Although this paradox hasn’t gone unnoticed, there is little explanation for this apart from the age-old trope of accusing political groups to be ‘hypocrites’ or ‘two-faced’. For a closer inspection, one must look at what the rhetoric of the BJP is and how it actually functions. As many a BJP resolution repeatedly highlight,
"Swadeshi should not be misinterpreted as a static or backward looking isolationist concept. It has to be comprehended in the wider perspective of the approach and thinking of Gandhiji and Deendayalji which form the shining features of the policy and programme of the B.J.P. in the realm of national development."
In this sense, it is naïve to argue that the Swadeshi Hindu Nationalist assertion of the importance of the cow, or the emphasis on family values and varna-based organization of society is a call for returning to an ‘ancient past’. These can be perfectly rational ways of organizing production in Hindu Nationalist terms, which they call Swadeshi.
Former Prime Minister, then Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 1991.
In many ways, the Swadeshi ethic tells us more about Hindu Nationalism’s broader nature in this sense. In the BJP’s Economic Resolutions, the themes that stand out are the attempt to incorporate the margins of society: “women, scheduled castes and tribes, backwards areas and classes…” All of which is based in the Hindu Nationalist ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s notion of Integral Humanism. This indicates how Swadeshi for the BJP becomes a tool for national integration, and extending the purview of not only the party, but also the postcolonial state into territories where it stands contested the most. This can be seen in the counter arguments against Maoists, Naxalites, Kashmiri separatist, and tribal groups offered by Hindu Nationalists, that they need a greater share in the economic and infrastructural development (vikas) of the country.
The failure to modernize quickly enough under Congress rule meant that latter Congress regimes had to begin opening up the economy. With this opening up, there was a growing realization that the nation was not strong enough to compete globally and thus needed to be (re)strengthened. The early nationalist discourses of the late 19th and early 20th century, that were entrenched in the civilization dialogue with Orientalists and European Romantics, as well as ideas of racial, masculine, and spiritual strength, became important yet again and were invoked by Hindu Nationalist groups. Economic strength and efficiency, a major component of this discourse, comes from realising the potential of the nation: “its own capital, its own able entrepreneurs, its own hard-working peasants and workers…” Clearly, since we haven’t realised this potential, we haven’t come into our own as a nation in the world. Hence, to realise the true potential of the nation, and also to become a ‘proper’ nation as it were, Swadeshi becomes a natural solution for Hindu Nationalism.
A poster of the Swadeshi Movement, 1905.
Further, Swadeshi is not only pure economics. It is a “harmonized” ethic, and one dimension of this is that it grounds economy in culture and/or spirituality. The defense against the socio-cultural onslaught of capitalism is also, hence, found within Swadeshi. This is seen, for example, in the fears of various Hindu Nationalist groups expressed with regards to the advertisement campaigns and television shows that come from the ‘West’, as part of which the BJP Government in the 1990s had imposed strict censorship over television serials, cinema, ad commercials etc., that it felt were against Indian morality. Promotion of indigenous alternatives to, or a complete rejection of ‘Western ways of life’ is also part of this ethic of Swadeshi. It is, thus, this sense of defending the Swadeshi way of life that cow becomes relevant for Hindu nationalism. The Cow is seen as a legitimate alternative against the new and suspicious methods of agrarian production. The hostility towards multinational farming companies, new dairy products like milk powder, and foreign grocery-retail brands is part of this Swadeshi ethic of preserving traditional methods of agriculture and dairy farming, the cow being an integral part of it. This is curiously close to the liberal ecological movements who lay stress on organic farming, natural fertilizers, unmodified crops and so on. Interestingly, Indira Gandhi, too once lauded the benefits of cows as opposed to electricity on a UN forum.
This use of Swadeshi as an invocation and preservation of tradition thus leads us onto the third major theme – a critique of Western Modernity. As common sense would suggest, the preservation of tradition translates into an attack on modernity. But it is a specifically ‘Western’ modernity that is the target in this case. Cases of hounding couples on Valentine’s Day, forcing them to tie rakhis or marry each other, or celebrating 14 February as Matri-Pitri Pujan Divas (Mother-Father Worship Day) to lay stress on family values, or the much more directly economic opposition to multi-national brands of fast food like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, and so on, are all examples of such anti-Westernization. This, however, does not mean that modernization in itself is a problem. It is only the ambiguously defined ‘West’ that poses a threat; the central mission is to modernize, but to do so while retaining a characteristic ‘Indian-ness’.
This is further related to a key characteristic of Hindu Nationalism that can be seen through the Swadeshi metaphor – Swadeshi as an expression of anxiety that is born out of globalization. This anxiety that I refer to may find its roots in the colonial encounter itself, such that the experience of ‘Other-isation’ or ‘Orient-isation’ at the hands of colonial modernity breeds a sense of the loss of a ‘Self’. But this anxiety comes back yet again along with the civilization discourses mentioned above. One can see its reflections BJP’s Economic Policy Statement of 1992 where there is an attempt to explain why Swadeshi is given importance even though the dominant flow of opinion is towards greater liberalization,
"...self-reliance does not mean isolation. Self-reliance also does not mean producing everything within the country regardless of cost, quality, efficiency or comparative advantage… The question is one of self-confidence, of being able to face challenges of a rapidly changing world which is arming itself all the time with new technologies and new opportunities for development and trade..."
Historian Thomas Blom Hansen writes in this regard that the project here is to promote a,
“disciplined and corporatist cultural nationalism that can earn India recognition and equality…through assertion of difference.”
Hence, the need, according to Hindu Nationalists, is to assert one’s Indian-ness and then modernise. Modernity needs to be embraced, but while retaining what is traditional. Tradition then becomes the cushion to lessen the blow that comes with modernization. The constant suspicion, general mistrust, and even inferiority complex against China is a great example of this. It may in fact date back to the 1962 war and have links to China’s alleged support to the Naxalbari movement and the Maoist insurgency, but in more recent times, it is symptomatic of the anxiety that motivates the Hindu Nationalist to pursue Swadeshi.
But as has been noted above, Swadeshi did not mean that India adopted a relatively isolationist policy under the BJP, neither did it mean that there was any significant opposition by the Hindu Nationalist groups when the BJP furthered the agenda of liberalization. Some sections of the Sangh Parivar dissented, but overall, there has been no real threat to global capital under the BJP, nor has there been a threat to the unity of the Sangh Parivar.
How does one read this paradox? On the one hand the BJP implies that there is little trust to be invested in foreign capital. On the other, it hasn’t come out with a single policy that hinders the flow of foreign capital into India’s economy. There has only been an effort to expand the presence of foreign capital by the BJP. In some ways then, the BJP seems to be more Congressi than Congress itself: on the one hand, using the rhetoric and idea of Swadeshi, which was originally popularized by Congress’s mass movements; but also, on the other hand, fully engaging in neo-liberal capitalist globalization, which it criticized the Congress and other liberal-coalition governments for attempting to do. This shows to us how Hindu Nationalist thought is in a sense impoverished, that it needs to latch onto liberal motifs in order to come into power. But on the other hand, it also points to the dangerous ambiguity in liberal-democracy itself as having room for such a symbiosis.
It is thus easy to argue that the BJP is not a conservative party, as it clearly is (economically) liberal/modern. But to read this as hypocrisy, opportunism or even as signs of tensions within the Sangh Parivar would be too simplistic. What we have in front of us is an interesting picture. The Congress cannot go out and simply proclaim to be pro-global capital and can appear neither anti-tradition nor anti-working class (both of which are conveniently united under the BJP’s idea of capitalist modernization). But the BJP can proclaim itself as a truly modernizing and globalizing force since it offers with it the cushion of Swadeshi. In this sense, the BJP can in fact be more Congressi than the Congress itself, since it carries out the original Nehruvian task of modernizing production and making the economy strong enough to compete globally, but it does it more efficiently through its deployment of the Swadeshi parachute, at least rhetorically. The BJP thus plays the INC’s game better than the INC itself.
This leaves one wondering how ideas function in society. There is seemingly a paradoxical gap between rhetoric and praxis of an idea. This gap however, is not simply hypocrisy or double standards. In fact, it seems that it is this gap itself that makes the idea whole. This would thus mean that the inversion of an idea is in reality the key component of the idea itself. In other words, such a Hegelian negation, once put into force, is what makes an idea function properly. Hence, we have the BJP proclaiming itself to be pro-Swadeshi on paper, but at the same time allowing a relatively undefined space for MNCs and global capital within this idea of Swadeshi in practice.
About The Author
Saarang Narayan is an academic of the left. He holds a Master's from Oxford University in Modern Asian Studies and is a graduate in History from Hansraj College. A closet cricketer, a home-based music producer and sound engineer, and a session guitarist, he is on his path to academic glory in the field of History.