India needs Swadeshi 2.0 to ensure benefits of industrialization reach the last person in the queue, to meet its security needs and to show the world the path to sustainability.
Talking of Swadeshi in these times sounds anachronistic. Swadeshi supporters are often dismissed as irrational socialists with nationalist hues. Swadeshi especially irks some media elements. Free market missionaries advocate opening up the national economy like a drain pipe. International banks and Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and World bank) forced us to open a large part of our economy. Governments in an effort to shore up foreign funds have opened up the economy in multiple sectors. However, one wonders how effectively all this is benefiting the citizens of our country. This foreign money has failed to trickle down to the last person, as Deen Dayal Upadhyay would have like to see. However, this article is not to advocate a closed economy and protectionism but at bulwarking the inner resilience of our manufacturers and innovators.
Prime Minister has time and again emphasized the need for India to pivot for the fourth industrial revolution which is underway. We missed the first and second completely, while managing to take some share in the third industrial revolution. The dream of a $5 trillion economy revolves around two key aspects: a) Riding on the fourth industrial revolution b) Directing development sustainably. No country has benefited from a free market economy without focusing on self-reliance. China opened its economy to the world only after it made sure its industrial systems and human resources were intact. Even as China became the world’s factory by manufacturing Western and Japanese products, it ensured that it was creating its own companies to develop independence from foreign products. China is poised to be a pioneer in fourth industrial products and services with home grown companies now leading the charge.
Japan, for one, did the ‘home work’ first before becoming a behemoth. When we opened our economy in 1991, how much of a 'home work' had we done?
Recently American newspaper Washington Post posted an article, which must have rung alarm bells in the Indian security establishment. CIA, the American intelligence agency, owned majority stakes in Crypto AG, a Swiss firm that sold encryption devices to security forces all over the world. India and Pakistan, both have bought Crypto devices. But here’s the alarm bell ringing revelation - CIA read most of the secret messages that were broadcast through Crypto devices. We shouldn’t be surprised if CIA read top secret messages of our intelligence services and perhaps, even shared some of them selectively with Pakistan. We do not know how many of our spies, who put their life at greatest risk for the country, and our soldiers died or, were killed from such actions. But, the important lesson is that we cannot afford to continue to buy foreign defense equipment and believe that the supplier countries will not track us through their products. There’s also a critical lesson here about using Huawei 5G services in India.
Ironical as it may sound, some of the greatest value creating products have been developed from government-sponsored military research.
For example, the Internet has its origins in Pentagon’s internal computer networking program called the Arpanet. Aircraft evolved to their modern form during World War I and II as rival countries rapidly innovated to outdo one another in air power. Many components of the modern-day mobile phones have their origins in military research conducted primarily in the US. The entire rise of Silicon Valley, perhaps, can also be attributed to military research. American dominance in military is primarily because of its military research. The US spent $ 649 billion on defense in 2018 compared to China’s $ 250 billion. China’s stated objective is turning the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-beating fighting unit by 2049. The US Department Of Defense (DOD) is reportedly asking for $104.29 billion for electronics-rich research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) projects in its fiscal 2020 budget request, which will be 8.7 per cent up from the $95.96 billion DOD researchers received this year. India’s total military budget in 2017-18 was $53 billion, with DRDO receiving $2.1 billion.
During the original Swadeshi movement, Indians started ditching British goods for Indian products, even though they were costlier. The impact was strong with British seeing 20% fall in its product sales. The trio of Lal-Bal-Pal organized several samitis to popularize Swadeshi products. In fact, Bal Gangadhar Tilak led Ganesh Utsavs as a means to popularize use and consumption of indigenous products from soil to sweets. Another notable figure in Swadeshi movement, largely forgotten now, is Chidambaram Pillai. He led a much successful Swadeshi campaign in Tuticorin. He took on the mighty British India Steam Navigation Company and its powerful boss Lord Inchape by starting Indian-owned shipping company, the Swadeshi Shipping Company in October 1906. It was as if the soul of Raja Raj Chola was tormented seeing the Indian shipping might diminished by the British and pushed Pillai to take on them. At its height, Indian naval and commercial shipping spread from Rome to China. Raja Raj Chola even took on the Srivijaya empire in Indonesia.
Today, as the world looks for leadership to steer it through the crises of climate change and techno-economic disruption, India can and should take the lead. In another era, India inspired spiritual guidance to the world. Now, we must lead the world into a safer tomorrow, where every country respects each other’s sovereignty and also that of Mother Nature; where peace is priority, not piece; and where there’s equitable distribution of wealth.
(Author is an independent political risk analyst and former LAMP fellow)