The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the economic wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), takes it job very seriously. In recent years, it has offered its views and positions on a raft of economic matters ranging from foreign direct investment to trade deals to startups, mobilising public opinion to influence government policy.
As one would expect from a nationalist organisation that propagates the use of Swadeshi, or indigenous, products, the SJM adopts a hard, protectionist line against what it believes are harmful for Indian enterprise. It has urged the Modi government to ban or regulate Chinese firms such as Huawei and TikTok, it has called for data localisation, pressed for stricter regulation of the e-commerce sector, argued against divestment, rallied against genetically modified crops and taken a tough stance on trade issues.
How successful were these efforts?
Remember, the SJM is no slouch in lobbying. The RSS is after all the key founder of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Many BJP politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have secured top positions in the government.
Has the BJP government acquiesced to the SJM’s policy calls? Here is a check: Huawei 5G trials SJM’s Demand: The SJM opposed the government's decision to allow China's Huawei Technologies to join in the upcoming trials for the next generation 5G networks.
"We are writing this letter to share the disappointment after the department of telecommunication allowed the Chinese telecom company Huawei to conduct 5G trials in India," Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, had written a
letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 31. What the Modi govt did: The SJM’s demand to ban Huawei came after the government cleared the decks for the Chinese company’s participation in the trials due to be held in January. The government decision also came amid a US-led push to shut out the Chinese tech and telecoms group, saying Huawei's gear contained "back doors" that would enable China to spy on other countries. So far, all indications are that the government will not bend to the SJM’s demand. RCEP SJM’s Demand: The SJM vigorously lobbied against the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), observing an 11-day countrywide protest in October 2019. The RCEP is essentially a free trade agreement (FTA) between the 10-member ASEAN and six of its biggest trading partners - China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Calling the RCEP as a FTA with China, SJM's national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan had said, "The trade deficit with China is at an alarming level of USD 54 billion. It is a well-known fact that the non-tariff barriers are the main cause of denial of market access to China. There is nothing in the RCEP to effectively discipline the non- tariff barriers (such as Mutual Recognition Agreements) and its exclusive focus on tariff reduction would be bringing an end to Indian manufacturing."
What the Modi govt did: After months of discussions and intense negotiations, New Delhi pulled out of the RCEP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his inner conscience didn't permit him to enter into the deal.
"Today, when we look around we see that during the seven years of RCEP negotiations, many things, including global economic and trade scenarios, have changed. We cannot overlook these changes. The present form of the agreement does not fully reflect the basic spirit and the agreed guiding principles of RCEP. It also does not address satisfactorily India's outstanding issues and concerns. In such a situation, it is not possible for India to join the RCEP agreement," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while explaining India's exit from RCEP.
SJM welcomed the Narendra Modi government's decision. E-commerce Regulation SJM’s Demand: The outfit has been voicing tighter regulatory norms in the e-commerce sector, particularly since the Modi government started its first term. On numerous occasions, the SJM blamed ecommerce giants such as Flipkart and Amazon for flouting laws and causing damage to the livelihoods of offline traders, through what it called an “indiscriminate discounting” and “predatory pricing.” Towards early 2019, it also said that Chinese sellers were selling goods on these platforms illegally. It sought an ecommerce policy favouring small retail traders and to protect their interests and passed a resolution in this regard in its January 2019 national convention in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai.
“The e-commerce companies including Flipkart and Amazon continue to circumvent laws detrimental to the interests of the traders namely small shopkeepers, book sellers, medicine shops and others. India should have a robust e-commerce policy to protect the interests of 13 crore people engaged in retail trade and crores of people in small and medium industries,” SJM’s co-convener Ashwani Mahajan said in Madurai.
What the Modi govt did: The government responded to the demands of SJM partially when it attempted to regulate deep discounts and predatory pricing while also trying to balance it with attracting FDI in the sector. In the Press Note 2 of the 2018 series, the DPIIT introduced substantial changes to the FDI policy in the e-commerce sector to deal with huge discounts and complex seller-structure models of major players in the sector. It further relaxed rules in single-brand retail in August 2019. Data Localisation SJM’s Demand: In last month’s Rashtriya Sabha in Haridwar, the SJM passed a resolution for ensuring sovereignty of data, data localisation, and digital nationalism. It also wrote a letter to PM Modi in this regard and described data generated in the country as a “national asset”, which should be conserved. Furthermore, the SJM said that India must pull back from negotiating data sovereignty at bilateral and multilateral trade talks.
“Data should not only be stored within geographical limits of India, but must also be computed here. Data is a national asset; it may be commercial, strategic or even elementary. Data must be protected,” Mahajan wrote in his letter.
What the Modi govt did: The 'Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019' was introduced in Parliament in December 2019 and referred to a joint select committee of both Houses of Parliament. The committee will give its report before the end of the Budget session, which usually begins in the last week of January. Broadly, the Bill spells out a framework for the handling of personal data including its processing by public and private entities. PSU Divestment SJM’s Demand: In its Haridwar conclave, the SJM has slammed the Modi government for its public sector unit divestment programme. It said the move to divest companies such as Air India, BSNL and BPCL was “opposed to national interest and prone to being misused by corrupt officials to benefit special business houses”. SJM also demanded that the NITI Aayog’s report on public sector enterprises should be junked. It said there is a need for a fresh assessment of the value and worth of public sector enterprises to achieve the vision of “doubling the GDP in the next five years and accelerating it further in corresponding years”.
strategic disinvestment of Public Sector Enterprises (PSEs) is not only an imprudent business decision, but is also against the national interest,” Ashwani Mahajan of SJM said. “It not only denies the people of India –the real owners of PSEs—the fair value of the assets and capital investments, but it also brings in unfair advantage for those who intend to buy.” What the Modi govt did: In November, the government kicked off a mega disinvestment plan, lining up the sale of five public sector units (PSUs), including majority stakes in bluechip oil company Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd (BPCL) and the Shipping Corporation of India. Also on sale will be a 31 percent stake in Container Corporation of India (Concor) along with management control. The sale of stakes in these three firms is expected to fetch the Modi government about Rs 78,400 crore, taking it close to the disinvestment target for the fiscal year.
The government has a target of Rs 1.05 lakh crore sale-off target this fiscal. So far by December end, only Rs 17,354 crore has been achieved.
On Tuesday, the
government issued an Expression of Interest (EoI) for the privatisation of Air India. Big international oil companies, including Saudi Aramco, are said to be keen on investing in BPCL, given the refiner's strong presence in fuel retailing, among other things.
government has raised Rs 2,79,622 crore from the disinvestment of public sector undertakings (PSUs) during 2014-19 compared to Rs 1,07,833 crore during the 10-year UPA rule from 2004-14, union minister Anurag Singh Thakur said in a Parliament reply during last month’s winter session. Foreign Currency Bonds SJM's Demand: The influential nationalist group demanded the Modi government review its plan to raise money by selling foreign currency bonds. The SJM said that it is anti-patriotic as it could create long-term risks for the potentially allowing rich foreign nations and their financial institutions to dictate the country’s policies.
“We can’t allow this to happen. We must look at the experience of countries that have taken loans from international markets to meet their government deficit. The experience of these countries has been far from good,” declared Ashwani Mahajan, citing Argentina and Turkey as examples.
Mahajan said going overseas to borrow may mean that the rupee currency depreciates at a faster rate and allows foreign governments to demand tariff reductions.
What the Modi govt did: The governemnt has accounted for only rupee-denominated bonds for borrowings this fiscal, likely due to softening of oil prices.