ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Idea of ‘Atmanirbhar’ India

The central government’s idea of “Atmanirbhar” India is more instrumental than substantive.

The central government has been using different semiotics to communicate to people the steps it has been recently taking in order to deal with the pandemic. The word “atmanirbhar” or self-reliant forms the latest addition to its vocabulary. The word under reference is not empty, but has normative content that has its philosophical roots both in the nation­alist as well as the moral economy suggested by M K Gandhi. “Embedding” economy into indigenous structures of production is common to both perspectives. Thus, the word “atmanirbhar” is loaded with a comprehensive meaning that is open to debate and discussion. It is this conception that combines both capitalist economy that underlies the nationalist economic thinking and Gandhi’s moral economy that seems to have prompted the governments in the past to use the ideal of self-reliance as an effective rhetoric. This word, thus, has a long history.

The present ruling dispensation at the centre has also resorted to the word self-reliance by making it part of its mission aimed at remodelling the Indian economy. This mission, however, is based on the following assumptions that are likely to go haywire. First, as many commentators have pointed out, the government would like to achieve this mission within the period of four years, the time period left for this government. The implied intention behind this declaration of the stated mission of self-reliance is that the ruling party is anticipating its own rule for a longer period, perhaps till it completes this mission. Such hidden anticipation, however, has adverse implications for vibrant democracy, demo­cracy based on the principle of power by rotation. It, however, is altogether a different thing, if the spokesperson of the central government is intending to use the mission of self-reliance as just an idea that can be taken forward by any political party that may become a ruling party in the future. But, this rather generous expectation is silent in the assertion about self-reliance.

Second, as has been clear from the press statement of the finance minister, the idea of atmanirbhar is sensitive to the moral need of holding hands with the whole world, but the government does not seem to be clear as to how it will reverse the inflow of international finance capital in India that would help the country retain its moral advantage at hand-holding the whole world. Given the interdependability that has become more acute in the current crisis, the inflow is going to remain irreversible and, thus, reduce the idea of hand-holding to the level of mere rhetorical generosity.

Third, the central government’s idea of self-reliance seems to be time-tested to the extent that it has taken into consideration only the pragmatic need to deal with the present crisis having a short-term impact on the economy and society. The government seeks to deal with the economic crisis by making monetary allocation to different sections. It is understandable to the extent that it provides a new lease of life to the Indian economy. But this approach, from the two different standpoints as mentioned earlier, appears to be much restricted in its definition of atmanirbhar. The current idea of self-reliance as proposed by the central government is silent about the need to become self-reliant in achieving equality and delivering justice to the people. The substantive conception of self-reliance would not accommodate in its logic structures of inequality that have had their tragic manifestation in the current crisis produced by the novel coronavirus.

The uneven distribution of urban spaces has enabled a privileged few to capture huge chunks of land, leaving minuscule portions for the habitation of a much larger population. The pandemic has underscored the need for an egalitarian distribution of urban space. This would ensure the urban disadvantaged real freedom from susceptibility and vulnerability to the health crisis that is not just pandemic but much more endemic in nature. For example, the absolutely poor quality of life of those who are stuffed into urban slums in India results in infecting lakhs of people with chronic diseases such as tuberculosis (TB). Let us not ignore the fact that the acute problem of congestion that exists in the urban slums across India has created a differential impact in the context of the spread of the novel coronavirus. Slums and semi-slums and areas with congestion and without any required space for free ventilation, made these localities more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Thus, creating a physically healthy society is one benign aspect of the ideal of India becoming self-reliant. Self-reliance would not mean making people dependent on either the private hospitals or the public health-related schemes, but to create health facilities with sophisticated care centres in the public sector.

The mission of making India atmanirbhar in its official version seeks to embed the economy into local structures of production and hypothetically suggests a balance between aggregate demand and supply. Such ideas may help arrest the flow of urban migration that has otherwise acquired an acute form of distress. This, in an ideal sense, would mean that the state will have to make massive investments not just in the economy but also the social sector, as well as in the areas of environment. Without holistic, long-term planning and a stronger political will for the radical restructuring of the economy on egalitarian lines, the idea of atmanirbhar may remain just a slogan.


Updated On : 26th May, 2020


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