The Prime Minister usually hits bull’s eye with the branding and messaging of his ideas. But he has had a miss with “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, stepping into the culturally loaded minefield of “self-reliance” —a noble word turned ignoble after 1991. Instead, he should have given a clarion call for “Atma Vishwasi Bharat”. His colleagues and acolytes would not have had such a hard time, splitting hairs, reinterpreting Atmanirbhar to mean self-sufficiency not self-reliance and arguing that the old xenophobic meaning of the word is consistent with the idea of globalisation.
He should use his considerable pivoting skills and turn Atmanirbhar to Atma Vishwasi Bharat (AVB) or self-confident Bharat. Signalling “yes we can” will work well with those sections of society eager to claw their way up the social status and income ladder (euphemistically called “aspiring India”) and with businesses and young Indians who strive to be global citizens in a world that, as all of us Indians know, is not inclusive, has never really liked us very much and gives us our due with great reluctance.
So far, our under-confident discourse has been all about “Can we really?” It has a parallel track: “Look at us, see how wonderful our heritage is”. But the latter is more of a defensive justification than a statement of intrinsic belief in ourselves. The pre-liberalisation Indian, still the ruling age cohort, has some degree of diffidence with respect to the rest of the world. Liberalisation’s children do better, many of them especially in the upper class have had student or work-related contact overseas and have had a chance to benchmark themselves. The generation born after 2000 has a lot less baggage, but all of them will go much further in the world with the tailwind of atmavishwas.
In AVB, “Make in India” would translate into not feeling paralysed that China dominates manufacturing for the world, but in believing that we can get our own small share of the pie, and working towards it by setting our own targets, devising our own strategy and making it happen our own way.
Instead of atmavishwas about being the pharma factory to the world and building it even bigger, we spook ourselves by saying we are hollow, we source active ingredients from China. The fact is that we used to make them ourselves until Chinese undercut us. We have the know-how and the manufacturing capacity to do it again, so we have the power to make or buy as needed. We enviously note that western countries are already giving the vaccine and stockpiling it, but when it comes to our own vaccine availability, we comment on approvals with not enough data, instead of giving it a mighty push. People who interact with the government for business approvals say that atmavishwas has to start with the executive establishment, whose first comment is: “Do we trust your data? How did you manage to do it?”
Unlike most countries, including China, we have a totally interoperable digital payments system that removes the power of closed loop groups and is a public utility with the capability to handle enormous volume at a very low price. We have created an IT services hub for the world, but we still say “Oh why do we not have products?” AVB would invest to create real global brands, not be content with exporting products around the world with name labels sold to faceless dealers, without visibility of actual user demand. In AVB, SMEs would force banks to find more appropriate methods to credit appraise them instead of saying “you have nothing to collateralise” and offering high risk pricing. AVB would make an effort to capture its own domestic demand instead of trying to sell the idea of our demand to lure reluctant FDI or let China dump in our markets because we say we can’t compete. AVB would celebrate that we have Indianised Amazon and our small producers are getting market access. AVB would also rap MNCs for violation of rules, when necessary, and not be swayed by cries of “If you do this, no one will invest in us”. AVB would use the worlds’ businesses to further its own cause, not complain about globalisation making us vulnerable. As a layperson, I believe that AVB is what we are seeing, at last, in our foreign policy.
Large swathes of India’s elite, including political parties, do not prefer an AVB. It will decrease the power distance between the masses and the classes; it may jeopardise their hard-earned positions on the global stage to be spokespersons for India.
AVB will solve India’s problems with (to borrow from C K Prahalad) “next practice” (new and better, leading the world) not “best practice” and will not dismiss the considerable Indian innovation in this direction as jugaad until foreigners bless it. AVB business schools will focus on creating a new body of management experience and research emanating from India that makes the world take note (and we have plenty to show there), and not focus on doing less relevant research that Western peer-reviewed journals will publish.
Yes, the line between self-confidence and smoking your own dope is thin, but we have so much to show already. Forget Atmanirbharta. Let’s take it up several notches.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 20, 2021, under the title “Yes, India can”. The writer is a market strategy consultant