New Delhi: In a short span of three decades, the ‘swadeshi’ ideology of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) has come full circle. The SJM was a ‘pariah’ for policymakers in the 1990s, but its philosophy has now found reflection in the clarion call of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India)’ given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for the organisation. It was set up on 22 November 1991 at Nagpur, Maharashtra, in the backdrop of India ushering in a new era of liberalisation. Dattopant Thengadi, a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) known for his exceptional organisational skills and intellectual prowess, played a key role in setting up the SJM.
An important voice of dissent
During the first five years, the organisation consistently took a stand against mindless globalisation in the name of liberalisation.
“However, we were not able to influence the decision-makers in power corridors as the downside of globalisation had not been experienced yet. The proponents of globalisation argued that the downside won’t happen,” said Ashwani Mahajan, co-convenor of the SJM.
“Liberalisation and globalisation were such fascinating concepts at the time. Everyone was jumping on that bandwagon, except a few like the SJM, which could foresee the aftermath of this policy mayhem. With the passage of time, as the downside becomes more and more visible, people have started realising the logic behind our consistent stand on key issues,” he added.
By 1996, the SJM had become an important voice of dissent on economic policy. The same year, it started its monthly journal Swadeshi Patrika in two languages – English and Hindi.
“Despite not being a resource-rich organisation, we haven’t missed out on a single issue of the magazine. During Covid-19, we decided to go digital,” said Mahajan.
From 1998 to 2004, a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader was in power at the Centre. The SJM didn’t hold back and took on the Vajpayee government on issues like disinvestment.
Political commentators termed it a strong-arm tactic of the RSS to influence the government, which wasn’t correct. According to a number of SJM functionaries who were active during the Vajpayee era, and were on the forefront of the SJM’s assertive strategy, the problem was that the BJP was in minority during the Vajpayee government’s tenure.
Also, none of the key members of the Vajpayee government – such as Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie – were rooted in RSS ideology. So, the decision-making in key policy spheres didn’t adhere to the principles of ‘swadeshi’. That is the reason the SJM continued to protest on many issues. This was in line with its consistent stand on key policy issues.
From 2004 to 2014, the country was led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress.
“During its first term, the influence of the Left parties paralysed the decision-making process. The SJM keenly observed that they were trying to convert it into a socialist state,” said an SJM functionary.
The SJM was opposed to a “rights-based” approach that focuses on doling out freebies as a “right” of the people. It pitched for creating capability and capacity among the less empowered.
During the second tenure of the UPA, the SJM adopted a belligerent posture and joined hands with the rest of the opposition on issues of corruption and lack of transparency. It also went after the UPA government aggressively on the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops.
During the last six years, most of the issues raised by the SJM have been addressed without any delay by the Modi government.
Some of the key issues on which the SJM’s stand got reflected in the Modi government’s policy is not allowing the commercial production of GM crops, putting in cold storage the idea to raise funds through sovereign bond issuances in foreign currencies, abolishing the Planning Commission and replacing it with the Niti Aayog, and imposing tariffs and non-tariff barriers to restrict imports etc.
The SJM’s influence could be gauged from the very beginning of the Modi government.
In July 2014, less than two months after the Modi government took over, the SJM raised the issue of GM crops. “Till now, no sanction has been given for commercial production of any GM crop in India,” said Mahajan.
In October 2014, a move to bring a new land acquisition law came up. The SJM expressed its concerns about the possible impact of the law on food security, its socio-economic impact, and issues related to consent of farmers whose land had to be acquired. An ordinance was brought thrice on the same subject and then it was allowed to lapse quietly.
Two Reserve Bank of India governors – Raguram Rajan and his successor Urjit Patel – and the first vice-chairman of Niti Ayog, Arvind Panagariya, were among those who didn’t fit into the ‘Swadeshi’ framework of the SJM and the organisation openly opposed them. None of them holds any important position in the government of India any more.
The decision of the Modi government to not join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was hailed by the SJM in November 2019. “The SJM believes that the RCEP would have undone various good works done by the NDA government under PM Modi in the last six months. The agreement would have killed Make In India, Digital India, Skill India and various other avenues of job creation,” it had said at the time.
“Many people ask why there is hardly any confrontation between the Modi government and the SJM, unlike what happened during the Vajpayee years. The reason is that the BJP has the majority in the Lok Sabha on its own and, hence, the Modi government is more receptive,” said a second SJM functionary. “Our key aim is not confrontation. There are three key elements of our strategy – creating awareness, educating people and running constructive programmes.”
The writer is research director with Delhi-based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra and has authored two books on RSS. Views expressed are personal