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.”