Scriptural Economy

Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat is a thinly veiled blueprint of the RSS’s “Hindu Economics”

Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak, or supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in conversation with Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India during an event in October 2010. Modi spent over three decades with the RSS, which is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organisation, while Bhagwat is the sixth sarsanghchalak and took over as the head of the Sangh in 2009. PTI
23 July, 2020

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi first launched the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan, or self-reliant India mission, during an address to the nation on 12 May. It was the forty-ninth day of the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic and the announcement was made as a part of the fiscal package rolled out by the government to deal with its disastrous economic fallout. It was his fifth address to the citizenry ever since the pandemic hit and Modi took the occasion to remind people that they bore the “responsibility” of ensuring that the “21st century will belong to India.” He suggested that the upending of the existing “global order” due to the pandemic had presented India the “opportunity” to fulfil that responsibility, and the only way to capitalise on it was an “Atmanirbhar Bharat.” Modi spent almost half of his 33-minute speech expounding on his vision of a self-reliant India. 

Taking on the role of a kindly guru, Modi spent considerable airtime dwelling on the concept of a self-reliant India rather than what the mission would entail—the details were eventually left for the union minister of finance to announce. Modi said that the “very idea” of an atmanirbhar Bharat was a product of age-old “sanskriti,”or culture, and “samskara,” or character, and had its roots in Hindu religious scriptures such as the Vedas and Shastras. His explanation was liberally peppered with Sanskrit quotes, ostensibly to add the heft of ancient wisdom to this doctrine of the future.

He quoted the Mundakopanishad, and said “eṣa vaḥ panthaḥ”—this is your road, to demonstrate why self-reliance was essential. He used another sloka, “Mata Bhumi: Putro Aham Prithviya”—this earth is our mother and we are its sons—to hail Indians’ connection to their homeland. Modi then suggested that this Indian virtue was a necessity for the global order, too. “The culture that believes in Jai Jagat”—hail to the universe—“that wants the welfare of the living; that considers the whole world as its family … If the land of that Bharat becomes self-reliant, it automatically ensures the prosperity of the world.” He concluded his address with another Sanskrit quote to show why self-reliance was the only way, “sarvam atam vasnh sukham,” and like a preacher explained its meaning, too. “Arthaat jo hamare vash mein hai, jo hamare niyantran mein hai, wahi sukh hai”—Meaning, what we have power over, what is in our control, that is the only happiness.

Officially, Atmanirbhar Bharat has been positioned as a campaign to increase local manufacturing, which would gradually make the country import-free through various economic policies. But Modi’s speech made it amply clear that the idea of self-reliance went far beyond the pale of economic policies. The emphasis on scriptures—which he implied were the country’s culture and character—to legitimise “his vision” was less than subtle. Over the coming weeks, Modi advocated this new socio-economic order on multiple platforms—his interactions with the chiefs of the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Indian Chamber of Commerce, Mann ki Baat, a radio programme hosted by Modi, and the launch of an employment scheme, which was a part of the mission.

Notably, in the weeks before Modi’s address, the top leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh had talked up the same self-reliance model. The RSS is Modi’s alma mater—he spent over three decades with the Sangh, which is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organisation. On 6 May, Dattatreya Hosabale, a sah sarkaryawaah, or joint general-secretary, of the RSS, held an interaction with foreign journalists. Hosabale, who is the third in command in the organisation, suggested that a “new model” of socio-economic order was the need of the hour and this model should be “based on self-reliance and swadeshi ideas.” Hosabale said the new swadeshi model was needed because “the pandemic has exposed the limitations in the ideologies of both global capitalism and global communism.”

However, the first mention of self-reliance had come from Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak, or supreme leader, of the RSS. On 26 April, Bhagwat addressed the nation during a speech titled, “Current Situation and Our Role.” He called for a “new model of development” which he said must be based on “swavalamban,” a Sanskrit term for self-reliance. Using the same vocabulary that Modi would employ later, Bhagwat said that citizens should “turn the sankat”—calamity—“into an avsar,”or opportunity. The Caravan has already documented, in a three part series, how the Sangh mobilised during the lockdown, conducted what it calls “sewa,” or service, and how sewa is a means to the Hindu Rashtra

This new socio-economic model has not been rustled up by the current leadership of the Sangh and the BJP. The self-reliant, swadeshi socio-economic order extolled by Bhagwat, Hosabale and Modi has been meticulously laid out in a book titled The Third Way, by Dattopant Thengadi. Thengadi, who passed away in 2004, was the founder of the Sangh’s trade, labour and farmers wings, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and the Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, respectively. The book was first published in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the book, Thengadi presented a “Hindu approach” to economy and society as a new and only model to “save humanity” because the “collapse of communism” and the sustained “decay of capitalism” had left an “ideological vacuum” in the world.

True to the Sangh’s Hindu supremacist ideals, Thengadi’s book outlined a “Hindu view of the global economic system,” and a set of theories he called “Hindu economics.” In the same spirit of chauvinism, the book set Hindus apart from the rest of the world by advocating a framework of an “indigenous legal system.” This “indigenous” framework is positioned and proposed as “our constitution.”

The core of Thengadi’s Hindu economic system is that it should be governed by the rules laid down in Hindu religious scriptures such as the Vedas, the Smritis and the Shastras, and other Brahmanical literature. He quoted slokas from scriptures to formulate economic principles for pricing, industrial relations, social welfare, among others, and used dubiously framed historical references of Hindu rulers to demonstrate their effectiveness and suitability.

Thengadi dismissed India’s post-Independence economic model as a “western” idea that will invariably lead to “anarchy.” His antipathy towards “western ideas” is such that he held “internationalism”—maintaining international relations—among the root causes of India’s problems. The former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s “liberalisation” in the early nineties, was termed as “sheer gullibility,” and blamed for spreading “internationalism” in the country. The book said that adoption of global ideas destroyed India’s vaunted social institutions, such as “caste,” and removed the role of religion from people’s life. As per Thengadi, the breakdown of caste and the absence of a religious framework in society were to be blamed for all crises besetting the country. 

Thengadi’s book deserves a cover to cover read because several schemes launched by Modi under the Atmanirbhar Mission have been prescribed in the The Third Way. Three senior RSS ideologues—Ramashish Singh, D Vijayan and Biplov Roy—who have been full-time members of the Sangh for over four decades, categorically told me that Modi’s atmanirbhar Bharat was a socio-economic order prescribed by Thengadi. In addition, a closer analysis of the book also suggests that several of Modi’s previous economic and social schemes had their conceptual origin in Thengadi’s “Hindu view” of socio-political and economic systems. In fact, in an address to the commerce chamber on 11 June, Modi asserted that “a self-reliant India has been a priority in the country’s policy and administration over the last five to six years. Now, the coronavirus has taught us to expedite that mission.”

A look at the announcements made under the aegis of the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign revealed that at least two major economic decisions by the Modi government implemented one of the basic theories of “Hindu economics”—removal of government oversight from industrial matters. In part four of chapter one of The Third Way, Thengadi advocated that the government act only as a “patron” in the industrial sector. He used two historical instances to explain the idea.

“During the Mauryan period, the factories under the civil boards used high quality materials, and employees therein were paid fair wages by the municipal board. During the same period, the practice of digging mines and working of factories at the government expense came into being. Under Vijayanagar empire 500 artists are recorded to have been working upon gold and silver thread in the government factories. Nevertheless, the role of the state in case of such industries had been that of a patron. There was no centralisation which stifles individual freedom and stultifies the natural growth of human personality.”

The Mauryan and Vijayanagara empires were geographically and culturally distinct, and separated by at least 1400 years—that did not deter Thengadi from establishing a questionable continuity in state policies. It is also unclear how Thengadi concluded that “nevertheless” the state was only a patron despite the fact that the mines he mentions were being worked under the kingdoms’ control.

In line with Thengadi’s concept of the state as a mere patron, on 16 May, the union minister of finance, Nirmala Sitharaman, officially announced the launch of commercial mining. Commercial mining allows private miners to mine coal and minerals from the same site without any limit and store them and price them without any regulatory oversight. Sitharaman said that under the fourth tranche of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan relief measures, “50 coal blocks will be offered immediately for auctions.” On 18 June, Modi kickstarted the scheme—41 blocks were on offer—and said, “We are not just launching the auction for commercial coal-mining today, but bringing the coal sector out of decades of lockdown.” Contrary to previous rules, miners who had no prior experience could also bid in the auction held on 18 June, as long as they could make an upfront payment. While the private sector hailed the move as the end of the government-owned Coal India Limited’s monopoly, the decision effectively removed the government’s control on mining of the country’s vast natural resources.

In January 2020, a cabinet panel on economic affairs used the ordinance route to allow amendments in the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 and the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015. Ordinances are laws promulgated by the union cabinet, without the sanction of the Parliament, which are valid for a period of six months. These amendments facilitated commercial mining. According to a news report in the New Indian Express, the first tranche of mines was originally meant to go under the hammer in April but had to be delayed due to the pandemic. 

The second major economic decision to remove the state’s oversight was the deregulation of agriculture markets announced on 15 May, by Sitharaman, under the third tranche of the mission. The government waived off the requirement for selling of agricultural produce in government mandated markets. Left-wing farmers’ unions, such as the All India Kisan Sabha, expressed concern over the decision and told the news website The Wire that it would leave farmers “at the mercy of the Agri Business Corporations since there will not be any arrangements for price support and price stabilisation for crops.”

Apart from the state reduced to the role of a patron, the model “industrial structure” proposed by Thengadi, and actively advocated by the RSS, considers the role of the Parliament as that of only a coordinator. According to Thengadi’s ideal model, an industrial structure should be “financed by commoners,” “utilised by consumers,” “coordinated by Parliament,” “assisted by state,” and ultimately “governed by Dharma.”

If there was any doubt as to the intent behind these reforms, on 2 June, Modi addressed the CII and said, “For us, reforms mean the courage to take decisions and take them to their logical conclusions. Whether it’s IBC [Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code], GST [Goods and Services Tax] or the system of faceless income tax, we have always strived to decrease the government’s interference in the system.” He continued, “aur maine toh laal quile se kaha ki logon ki zindagi se hum sarkar ko jitna kam kar saktey hain karna chahiye”—When I spoke from the Red Fort, I told the people, we should reduce as much of the government’s presence from people’s lives as possible. To demonstrate how his government has followed this commitment, Modi gave examples of his decision to allow commercial mining of coal and minerals, and the deregulation of the agriculture market. In addition, on 24 June, Modi’s cabinet also approved the entry of private companies into strategic sectors such as space and atomic energy.

Another major decision under this new self-reliant social-economic order was the launch of “skill mapping” of the workforce that returned home during the lockdown. Announced in the beginning of June, this exercise is being conducted by the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship with the help of state governments. The ministry is mapping the skills of migrant workers and certifying them so as to provide work opportunities closer to their homes.

One of the first states to start this was Uttar Pradesh under the Atma Nirbhar Uttar Pradesh Rojgar Yojana. The state’s scheme, apart from promising to assimilate workers into local industries, also provides loan facilities related to the workers’ trade and their skill. The state has also decided to use the skill-mapping data for its own employment scheme, known as the Vishwakarma Shram Samman Yojana. The VSSY financially incentivises “traditional trades.” To qualify for the scheme, a worker has to be involved in “traditional trades” such as nai, or barber, darji, or tailor, badhai, or carpenter, mochi, or cobbler, halwai, or confectioner, tokri bunker, or palm leaves weavers, lohar, or iron smiths, rajmistri, or masons, sunar, or goldsmith. In India, several traditional trades are caste-specific. For instance, cobblers and sanitation workers are mostly Dalits, while nais, sunars, lohars and halwais are often Shudras.

Modi inaugurated the Atma Nirbhar Uttar Pradesh Rojgar Yojana through a video call with the chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht commonly known as Yogi Adityanath on 26 June. During the call, Bisht presented the data for the Vishwakarma scheme and said, “The distribution of tool kits to over 5000 traditional traders under the Uttar Pradesh VSSY will also be done by the auspicious hands of the prime minister today.” Bisht told Modi that of 5000 traditional traders, “1650 are darjis, 1088 were involved in metal works such as Lohar and Sunar, 250 in glass work, 130 in mattress work, 669 were Halwais, 212 Nais, 137 basket weavers, 120 Kumbhars, those involved in pottery, 95 Rajmistri, 112 were involved in footwear work.” Modi congratulated Bisht for the employment scheme and said, “Yogi ji’s government has implemented the central government’s scheme in qualitative as well as quantitative way. The UP government didn’t just add more schemes in it but also increased the number of beneficiaries. In fact, he clubbed them with the goal of the Atmanirbhar Bharat.”

The scheme implements a theory that Thengadi mentioned in The Third Way. Thengadi wrote, “With the introduction of changes in the techniques of production, communication, etc., most of the 3,000-odd traditional trades became obsolete or uneconomical, and new trades came into being. This resulted in the breakdown of the traditional caste-system.” It was Thengadi who first put down this suggestion of formation of “occupation-wise organisations” as a means to restore the caste order.

It would not be amiss to say that the Uttar Pradesh scheme incentivises and seeks to consolidate the basis of the caste-system in India—the varnashrama, a hierarchical social-system mentioned in the Rig Veda that divides people in four segments based on their births. Brahmins are the highest and Shudras are the lowest in this hierarchy, while Dalits are placed outside the structure and are given the status of avarna, or non-varna, and are considered outcasts.

Thengadi had gone on to add, “The process of consolidation and organization of occupational or trade groups must be pursued and the latter given due representation on elective bodies… the vast majority of our people, such as peasants, the managerial and technical cadres, self-employed artisans, agricultural and forest labourers, etc., are still unorganised. Their occupation-wise organisation must be expedited.” Thengadi, however, credited this idea to MS Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. The Third Way is dedicated to Golwalkar, who like Thengadi, was a Brahmin.

While the pandemic gave the government an opportunity to expedite the RSS’s ideology of a new socio-economic order, Modi seems to have been assimilating those ideas in his policies earlier as well. In November 2019, the government introduced the Labour Code on Industrial Relations Bill, 2019. Among other things, the Bill proposed that states would have the power to increase the lay-off limit for industries from 100 to 300 without seeking any government approval. The Bill also recommended several other anti-labour policies such as a reduction in the compensation provided to retrenched workers to 15 days of average pay against the earlier 45 days; unions would now have to show the support of 75 percent of their membership as opposed to the earlier limit of 66 percent to qualify for negotiations; and a 14-day notice period before announcing any union-backed strike. The Bill effectively curtailed labourers’ rights vis-à-vis their employers.

This concept of non-interference between labour and owners is again propounded by Thengadi in his book. He quoted the Arthasashtra to imply that a utopian culture can exist between employees and employers if they are allowed to sort out grievances among themselves without any state-mandated frameworks. Private corporations are referred to as guilds in the Arthashastra. Thengadi wrote, “The guilds had autonomous character. Members of the guild were themselves to settle all internal disputes according to their own constitution. No power or person outside the guild was competent to do this job. There could be no interference by the state in the internal administration of the guilds except when there arose a dispute between the president and the members.” As per Thengadi’s vision, the state would intervene only when owners have disputes; employees did not need third-party recourse.

In Thengadi’s vision, under a socio-economic system governed by dharma, ownership of businesses should be restricted to Brahmins and Vaishyas—the third varna. These segments should have an independent grievance redressal system while Shudras, who were meant to carry out their traditional trades and serve as labourers, ought to listen to their owners, as prescribed by dharma. Under Thengadi’s “Hindu economics,” a society was defined as “a body with individual therein as its limbs.” This definition has its roots in the Purushokta, a hymn in the Rig Veda which sanctifies the caste system.

The Modi government has publicly pivoted to this new socio-economic order and it has the RSS’s stamp all over it. Bhagwat was the first one to call for a “new model of development” during his speech on 26 April. He said the new model should be a combination of the “most helpful aspects of modern science” that complement our “well established traditions.” According to Bhagwat, this model could not be implemented by the state alone, it needed the support of citizens and that support would take the shape self-reliance. He was the first one to say that citizens need to change their behaviour since this new model of development was not limited to just an economic model. Bhagwat also asked the people to follow “swa adharit tantr”—a system based on the self.

The concept of swa adharit tantr can be more clearly understood from Thengadi’s concept of society and how an individual was supposed to behave within it. Thengadi described a concept of Swadharma in which every individual must follow the social codes prescribed for the community they belong to—this was necessary for the “healthy continuity” of all communities. Again, in practice this concept attempts to restore the caste system. Thengadi wrote:

“The right order of human life as of the universe was preserved according to the ancient Indian idea by each individual-being following faithfully his Swadharma, the true law and norm of his nature and the nature of his kind and by the group-being, the organic collective life, doing likewise. The family, clan, caste, class, social, religious, industrial or other community, nation, people were all organic group-beings that evolved their own Dharma; and to follow it was the condition of their preservation, healthy continuity, and sound action.”

Thengadi further wrote that the Indian polity was a “system of a complex of community freedom and self-determination, each group unit of the community having its own natural existence and administering its own proper life and business, set off from the rest by a natural demarcation of its field and limits.” Consequently, the “self-reliance” being advocated by the RSS and the Modi government implies a stratified society whose members self-enforce the boundaries created by birth.

This philosophy of Thengadi and by extension the RSS’s, finds justification in the concept of dharma as the supreme force in the world. Thengadi defined dharma as, “Dharma in practice comprises the unchanging, eternal, Universal Laws and the ever-changing socio-economic order in the light of these Universal Laws.” According to him, dharma is the ultimate “point of reference” for deciding any matter. “For example, morality in the man-woman relationship is the Universal Law. But the institutional arrangements to preserve and promote morality can be neither eternal nor universal.”

In his book, Thengadi called the various Smritis as the codification of dharma or the universal law, drawn from ancient wisdom. However, Bhimrao Ambedkar dismissed this provenance in a research paper titled Revolution and counter revolution in ancient India. Ambedkar called the Smritis the “literature of Brahmanism,” and wrote that they were composed sometime after 185 BCE. Ambedkar also wrote that the Hindu belief that Smritis were written in “very old times” was nothing but a matter of “faith.”

In defence of dharma as the sole guiding principle, even for state matters, Thengadi wrote that “Vedic Rishis had made experiments of 13 different forms of government.” According to him, “Indian monarchy” that existed before the “Mohammedan invasion” was a righteous form of governance in which the king functioned as the “divine power and guardian of Dharma.” He wrote, “Greater sovereign than a king was Dharma - the religious, ethical, social, political, juridical, and customary law organically governing the life of the people.” Consequently, in the RSS’s socio-economic order, the state and governments are subservient to dharma.

Thengadi also advocated such governance as ideal because social institutions such as caste were defined as the “natural organic development” of the ancient Indian socio-political system that was required for “oneness” of all the communities. He wrote, “It was not the business of the state authority to interfere with or encroach upon the free functioning of the caste, religious community, guild, village, township or the organic custom of the region or province or to abrogate their rights, for these were inherent because they were necessary to the sound exercise of the social Dharma.”

Notably, Modi’s speeches and accompanying visual cues subtly advance this idea of a state and governance. On 19 June, Modi paid tribute to Acharya Mahapragya, a Jain religious guru, on the occasion of the deceased saint’s birth centenary. The video address was telecast live on Modi’s official YouTube channel as well as several government-backed television channels. Modi said, “I consider myself lucky. I remember when I was the chief minister of Gujarat; acharya ji had come to Gujarat. At that time, I got the opportunity to participate in his non-violence yatra and serve humanity.” As Modi spoke, a picture of him touching the feet of the religious guru appeared on the split screen on his official YouTube channel. In another frame, Modi stood in front of the guru with folded hands.

Modi continued, “Aur maine tab acharya ji k samne kaha tha, main chahta hun ye tera panth, mera panth ban jaye. Acharya  Mahapragya ke sneh se tera panth mera panth ban gaya. Aur main bhi acharya sree ka ban gaya”—And then, in front of acharya ji, I said to him that I wanted his belief to be mine, too. The love of Acharya Mahapragya ensured that his belief became mine. And I gave myself up to acharya sree. The prime minister’s obsequiousness towards a religious guru and the juxtaposition of images was meant to portray that even the head of state is below a religious guru, and that Modi was a recipient of the guru’s blessings for some time. He ended his tribute by saying, “I am convinced that soon our country will fulfil the determination to uphold the example of society and nation placed before us by our rishis, our saints and their spiritual selves.”

The fact that Thengadi’s theories have formed the blueprint for Modi’s government was reinforced by senior RSS members, too. Biplov Roy, the state in charge of South Bengal, told me that Modi’s “Skill India,” an industry-relevant skill training programme officially known as the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Yojana, and the “Mudra Yojana,” a central government programme that provides loans to small enterprises “were also implementation of Thengadi’s philosophy.”  Ramashish Singh, a pracharak from Varanasi, went a step ahead and said, “If you read Dattopant ji thoroughly, you will see that there is no difference at all between Modiji’s policies and his theories.”