Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on Tuesday, on a renewed drive for a self-reliant India is not merely a reaction to the new global realities spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a throwback to the nationalist economic policies that India and other newly independent nations followed in the last century before the high tide of globalisation swept over. His statement also foretells a potential renewal of the swadeshi economic policies that continue to inspire Hindutva politics long after centrist nationalists have abandoned them. India opened itself to the global market in 1991 through its liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation policies, but remained cautious as it skirted around the whirlwind of international capital in the following decades. This hesitant approach of India often led to a clamour from various vocal quarters for faster and deeper opening of its economy but its relative insularity from disruptive global headwinds turned out to be helpful several times in the last three decades. When Mr. Modi took over as Prime Minister, there was a renewed cry from global corporations and foreign governments for bolder reforms. If anything, he travelled the opposite course — raising fresh trade barriers and seeking to strengthen India’s manufacturing base through the ‘Make In India’ initiative. In doing so, he has been true to his ideological calling and also to his mandates of 2014 and 2019 — which were not sought or won for expanding globalisation. Mr. Modi’s politics, in fact, rides on the mobilisation of people dispossessed and alienated by the rumbling march of globalisation by providing them new targets to vent their anger on.
The pandemic brought to the fore at once the limits and inevitability of globalisation. Countries such as the U.S. that relied on others for the supply of essential medicines and medical equipment were suddenly vulnerable. China’s unmatched leverage in global supply chains and concerns that it may weaponise trade have prompted a renewed global discussion on the components of national security and how to protect them. At the same time, this pandemic continues to illustrate how inseparably shared is the future of humanity, across national boundaries. Mr. Modi understands this dynamics of global politics and has sought to advance India’s interest within an emerging framework. He did not repudiate globalisation, but proposed a new syntax for it — a human-centric one, as opposed to the current profit motivated model, according to him. He placed India at its centre. This is largely rhetorical and might be unmindful of India’s limitations. To the extent that such politics brings succour to the disadvantaged, it is to be welcomed. If this is only a facade for majoritarianism or authoritarianism, it will bring more harm to the same people that this approach professes to protect. His supporters and opponents alike would be eager to see how this philosophy translates into policy.