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Atmanirbharta & Vishwaguru: Will they inculcate pride? – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Atmanirbharta & Vishwaguru: Will they inculcate pride? - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Arun Kumar

In a recent interview, Mr. Nripen Mishra, Chairperson of the Committee to construct the Ram Janmabhumi Temple said, `Our youth are very sensitive to the call that India must become a big power  … I think we have to inject this … the temple as one more reason for being proud’.

Clearly, the ruling establishment has set a goal of inculcating a sense of pride among the citizens, especially the youth. Building the grand Ram Janambhumi Temple is one more way of doing that. So was the building of the tallest statue, a grand Central vista, Parliament House, etc.

Atmanirbharta and Vishwaguru

The slogans of Atmanirbharta and India as Vishwaguru have been used continuously to inculcate pride. The package of Rs. 22 lakh crore announced in May 2020 soon after the start of the pandemic was called Atmanirbhar. Greater self-reliance is sought by raising customs duties since at least 2017. Reminds one of the 1960s ideas that Indian industries need protection from imports. India is currently heavily dependent on the import of armament. So, indigenous defense production is sought to be increased to reduce this dependence and also to enable exports to earn foreign exchange.

But, if we are dependent on others for critical supplies, are we already Vishwaguru? Maybe atmanirbharta could make us Vishwaguru in the future. Are we doing the right things to achieve it?

The `Vishwa guru’ status is currently claimed on the basis of soft power, like, yoga and film music. In economic terms we claim to be the fastest-growing large economy and that our production has surpassed that of our colonial master, Britain, to make us the 5th largest world economy. But the true measure of prosperity is per capita income which is abysmally low. For the poor and unemployed what does being vishwaguru mean?

Premature claims of being vishwaguru breed complacency. Do other nations accept our claim? In January 2021 at WEF the PM announced that the world could learn from India how to handle the pandemic. By March, the country suffered grievously in the second wave.  


Atmanirbharta, self-reliance, is a complex idea. India has strived for it since its Independence. Colonial rule had caused a deterioration in India’s socio-economic conditions which led to mass poverty. India lagged way behind the advanced countries in 1947. To gain independence, the national movement used the idea of self-reliance to raise people’s consciousness against colonization. Gandhi suggested `Swaraj’ or self-rule and said, `There are no people on earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power’. This idea persisted among the leadership after independence since India had to contend with neo-colonialism and given its backwardness, India depended on other nations for aid, technology, etc. 

The notion of self-reliance had to be differently interpreted in a different context. In a globalizing world, it may be in the nation’s interest to import in a big way and exchange ideas with others. But, if other nations try to capture their markets, as they often do, self-reliance may require protecting the home market.

Globalization and Atmanirbharta

Is globalization consistent with Atmanirbharta? Colonization was also globalization. Political independence does not imply insularity but the ability to deal with other nations to serve the national interest. India gained considerable autonomy in policy to pursue a path in its self-interest through industrialization, development of social and physical infrastructure, etc. The public sector and a reasonable technology base were developed to gain a modicum of economic independence. Pressures from the international financial institutions to follow their agenda or to allow consumerism were warded off till 1980.

The big shift came in 1991 with the new economic policies which were imposed by the IMF as conditionalities. Atmanirbharta which was slowly eroded post the mid-1970s got breached. 

Can Borrowing Lead to Atmanirbharta?

The government has reversed direction since 2017 and is attempting greater self-reliance. But, is the strategy for achieving it right? In a globalizing world, dealing with other nations as equals requires a rapid generation of technology and socially relevant knowledge. This is not possible without a strong education and R&D infrastructure which we are lacking in. The government claims that the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 will help in this direction. But its emphasis on inviting the top foreign universities to come to India, something UGC is pushing, can only further undermine indigenous strengths.

Schemes to get foreign faculty and borrow syllabi from foreign universities have existed but they undermine Indian academia’s autonomy. India has long had faculty members who earned their degrees abroad. If that could not impart dynamism to Indian institutions would the recent steps succeed? The idea that originality can be copied is a contradiction in terms. Even if some good foreign Universities do come, they can only be a shadow of the original.

It would also relegate Indian institutions and academia to second-rate status. Foreign faculty will only come on privileged terms not available to Indian academics. The lesson for good students would be to go abroad and from there return to Indian institutions. That would deprive Indian institutions of good students for research thereby adversely impacting research in India. Further, India has its own unique problems that are unlikely to be the concerns of foreign institutions and academics. 

The change in focus of Indian institutions would further undermine the generation of relevant knowledge, the absence of which has been a cause of the lack of dynamism in Indian institutions. Indian academics have largely been `derived’ intellectuals, borrowing ideas from the West and recycling them in India. This trend would be reinforced to the detriment of those who were generating socially relevant knowledge because their work would be largely characterized as not of international standard and discounted in recruitment and promotions.  

The disadvantage of a Late Start

It could be argued that one should not reinvent the wheel; therefore, there is no harm in borrowing ideas from abroad. In growth literature it is called `advantage of a late start’ – technology already developed becomes available to the late starters. A pre-requisite for this strategy to succeed, in a fast-changing world, is a strong research environment in the borrowing country. Without that the borrowing country could become permanently dependent, leading to a `disadvantage of a late start’. This is true for most developing countries, including India.

In India with every pay commission, steps to strengthen teaching and research in institutions of higher education were put into place but they have not delivered in the absence of basic reforms. With NEP 2020, a new experiment has started without addressing the root cause of the failure of earlier policies. Our institutions of higher learning operate in a feudal mode where the autonomy and originality of academics are undermined. Independence in thought is seen as a malaise to be eliminated little realizing that that is the key to new knowledge generation. No wonder, those Indians who deliver when in foreign institutions fail to do so working in India.

In brief, borrowing from abroad without changing the systems in the country will not lead to atmanirbharta. The deficiencies in our education system need to be rectified before the strategy to borrow can succeed. Are we not putting the cart before the horse when the leadership talks of atmanirbharta while doing everything to curtail originality in thought and seeking compliance with their diktats?

The slogan of Vishwaguru and atmanirbharta have not yet instilled pride in the nation, how will building a big temple do so? Will the poor and unemployed become proud citizens forgetting their misery? During the colonial period, perhaps religiosity was greater but pride was missing.

The article was first published on HW News as Inculcating Pride In the People: Can This Be The Way Forward? on May 16, 2023.

Read more by the author: https://www.impriindia.com/insights/global-capital-impact/

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