I have been listening to the Dussehra speech of Mohan Bhagwat, the Sarsanghchalak or head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since its birth in 1925, the RSS has given India two prime ministers: Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late 1990s and the present incumbent, Narendra Modi—both lifelong members of the Sangh.
The current Indian cabinet has many members of the Sangh including defence minister Rajnath Singh and road transport, highways and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari. Some of the most powerful chief ministers including the one heading the country’s wealthiest state Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, are RSS men.
In the world of the RSS, which describes itself as a not-for-profit socio-cultural organisation, the Dussehra speech is the highlight of the annual calendar. It provides an insight into what the organisation, which has around 6 million members, making it one of the biggest such groups in the world, is thinking and a roadmap of what it sees in the year ahead.
It is therefore particularly pertinent that Bhagwat devoted significant time in his speech this year to address the slowdown in India. Three things he said have particular policy relevance.
First, the question of mood: A slowdown needs to be fought not by talking incessantly about it (that merely reinforces the mood), but by focusing on upbeat parts while taking structural steps to resolve bottlenecks.
Second is his reinforcing and defining the swadeshi concept that the Sangh believes in. Bhagwat emphasised that swadeshi, to him, and indeed to the Sangh, did not mean fencing off from foreign trade. In fact he emphasised that it is an embrace of trade with the world but on favourable terms. It is only a domestically strong economy that can most effectively and expansively trade with the world, he said. Swadeshi is the acquisition of economic strength, he defined, which allows India to trade on its own terms and without being exploited.
Third (this might be the most significant, and most interesting to those who do not know the history of the Sangh) is his reference to the fact that many economists today question the relevance of GDP (gross domestic product) as the sole, or most significant, measure of economic well-being.
This, according to me, is the most explicit statement of the deeply embedded welfare-ist vision that has always been within the economic thought of the RSS but rarely has it been researched with care.
In joining the questioning of the relevance of GDP, Bhagwat is carrying forward a strain of thought within his 94-year-old organisation that has always sought to find a middle-path between capitalism and communism. At one point, this took the shape of strident protectionism but over the years the Sangh has come to embrace globalisation, global trade and foreign direct investment, but its caveat remains that the best way these can be conducted is by first strengthening the domestic economy of India.
This ideological complexity is often lost in the left-wing-right-wing binary of popular discourse. Any thoughtful analyses of the work of some of the Sangh’s key economic thinkers like Dattopant Thengadi (1920-2004), for instance, suggests that they were concerned more about a theory of wholistic well-being—one would perhaps call it mindful today—rather than an economic paradigm to apply to the markets.
While such cultural inputs into economic thinking would perhaps be considered esoteric, even indulgent, by economists up until even a decade ago, there is no avoiding the fact that the idea of wholistic well-being is accepted, even desired, in an age of devastating climate change due to excesses in consumption. Some efforts towards defining such alternative measures have been made by ideas like the Social Progress Index (SPI) which uses 54 indicators of fundamental human needs to measure progress in countries and is based on the work of the economists Douglass North, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.
Indeed, even the current Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started using terms like ‘ease of living’ as a key indicator for economic progress. In an essay called GDP Is Not A Measure Of Human Well-Being published recently in the Harvard Business Review, Bibek Debroy, chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India, wrote that the Ease of Living Index created by the country’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is expected “to evolve into a measurement tool to be adopted across districts”. “We believe that this more holistic measure will provide more accurate insights into the state of development of the Indian economy. The end goal is to have a more just and equitable society that is economically thriving and offering citizens a meaningful quality of life. With a change in what we measure and perceive as a barometer of development, how we frame our policies will also catch up”.
What all this adds up to is an indication towards the kind of social expenditure that the Modi government is hoping to roll out, including on a massive plan to provide piped water to more than 140 million households in the next five years.
Bhagwat’s questioning of GDP as a measure might yet be one of the clearest indicators of the kind of social spend India might see in coming years.
Views are personal.