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Why the appeal of 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' still endures

In an exclusive essay for Lounge, Arun Mohan Sukumar, author of 'Midnight's Machines', shortlisted for the NIF Book Prize 2020, reflects on the long and checkered history of the Indian state’s attempts to co-opt technology for narrow, political goals

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a virtual meeting with the Chief Ministers of the states where Covid-19 cases have seen a sudden spurt after the festive season, in New Delhi. (PTI Photo) (PTI24-11-2020_000082B)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a virtual meeting with the Chief Ministers of the states where Covid-19 cases have seen a sudden spurt after the festive season, in New Delhi. (PTI Photo) (PTI24-11-2020_000082B) (PTI)

By now, it is an all-too-familiar sight. The digital camera zooms into focus, revealing the prime minister, with the three tirangas in the background. His right arm, outstretched, pushes against the podium, allowing Narendra Modi to lean away from the frame as he prepares to make yet another announcement by video conference.

The covid-19 pandemic has injected Modi's already-irrepressible persona further into the digital veins of our national discourse. His web streams are everywhere—on our Twitter timelines, WhatsApp groups, YouTube channels, and TikTok videos (before he banned them). As if to apologise for the modernity of the whole enterprise, his online sartorial presence is marked by an item of local and cultural significance: in the early days of the pandemic, the prime minister draped a Manipuri lengyan around his face like a protective mask, which has been replaced more recently by a Kashmiri Kani shawl on his shoulder.

If form follows function, the prime minister’s choice of accessories at these web conferences is perhaps not a coincidence. On many an occasion, Modi has urged his compatriots to embrace technology, and wield it in a manner befitting the country’s cultural, even spiritual, ethos. At its Centenary Convocation last month, he congratulated the University of Mysore for offering a “multi-disciplinary” education. “You can [now] study both global technology as well as local culture simultaneously,” Modi told the gathering.

His words would have sat well with another figure who towered over Indian politics a century ago: Madan Mohan Malaviya. Engineers, Malaviya believed, should be able to combine “technical skill” with “culture”. In fact, the tethering of technological progress to spiritual advancement was Malaviya’s primary motivation to establish the Benares Hindu University in 1916.

The notion that India’s technological transformation can also nourish and galvanise Hindus and Hinduism, both through material prosperity and communal solidarity, is at the heart of Modi’s nation-building schemes such as “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat”. For evidence, one need look no further than the prime minister’s recent exhortation to keepers of the Hindu faith to promote his message of aatmanirbharta. While flagging off the 151st birth anniversary celebrations of a prominent Jain acharya last week, Modi declared it was the “saints, mahants, rishimunis and acharyas” of the Bhakti movement who guided leaders of the independence movement like Malaviya towards the vision of swadeshi and Aatmanirbhar Bharat. Saints of today had a similar responsibility to spread another message across the country: be “vocal for local”.

It is another matter whether Atmanirbhar Bharat can live up to its religious and spiritual billing. The prime minister spares no occasion to hail the “purity” of solar technology—at the launch of the International Solar Alliance, he cited the Vedic reference to the sun being the “soul of the world”—but under his watch, the government has instead greenlit the evisceration of dharti maa for the purpose of securing coal.

Had he been alive today, Pandit Malaviya would be mortified to learn the skill of Indian engineers have been marshalled to create legions of “IT Cells” for the Bharatiya Janata Party: far from imparting higher ideals of the faith, these digital units have been tasked with defending the shrill and parochial strain of Hindutva. And for all of the government’s efforts to wean India away from Chinese technology, the demand for affordable smartphones and electronic gadgets from across the border does not seem to be letting up. Atmanirbhar Bharat is only the latest chapter in the long and checkered history of the Indian state’s attempts to co-opt technology for narrow, political goals.

Midnight's Machines, published by Penguin Random House India.
Midnight's Machines, published by Penguin Random House India.

The relationship between India’s political class and technology is best illustrated through the proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant: each believing to be true what he alone felt and experienced. Jawaharlal Nehru, whose ringside view of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made him fearful of the Atomic Age, sought for India to understand technology, and not be enslaved by it. Like Aristotle who opposed the Greek innovation of Deus ex Machina—in the final scene of a play, a god would be lowered by a pulley onto the stage, climactically resolving the plot—for its abrupt, inexplicable and divine intervention, Nehru too was wary of his compatriots living in awe of strange machines bought from abroad.

So the India's first prime minister encouraged citizens to think small and think local, and nudged his scientific establishment to pursue frivolous and utterly infeasible projects like the indigenous solar cooker. He established the Community Development Scheme (CDS) as a conduit to gradually introduce new technologies into villages, but felt no need to include among them tractors or synthetic fertilisers. The abject failure of the CDS and his scientists’ fantastic schemes deeply disillusioned Nehru, and turned his gaze towards massive infrastructure projects.

Indira Gandhi stayed on message, goading Indians to reduce their dependence on unnecessary imports. Scientists were instead encouraged to come up with such novelties as mechanised bullock carts, solar handpumps, mini-refineries, and biogas-fueled fertiliser plants: ideas that were hardly scalable, but applauded by the intellectual elite. Her government shrewdly harvested the genuine aspirations of the “appropriate technology” movement, which called for an ecologically sensitive and resource-intensive approach to growth.

However, Indira Gandhi’s economic vision was neither driven by a desire for sustainability nor did she share her father’s skepticism of ‘soulless’ technology. Her call to self-reliance, instead, was rank political opportunism. Pressure from trade unions in the 1970s forced the Indian government to rethink the introduction of computers into the workplace. Inheriting an enervated economy, Indira Gandhi had also pursued a disastrous (but necessary) attempt to devalue the Indian rupee. The move was widely criticised and put her political career in jeopardy even before it took off. With limited reserves to purchase imported equipment, and public sentiment turning against her, the prime minister hit the brakes on foreign technology collaborations: she needed an excuse, which “appropriate technology” offered fortuitously.

The relationship between India’s political class and technology is best illustrated through the proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant

A caveat is in order here. While the edifice of the license raj was being built, and consumer-facing technology increasingly difficult to acquire, Indira Gandhi lavished resources on India’s space and nuclear programmes. In his magisterial history of India’s nuclear programme, Robert Anderson notes it was unable to supply even a single megawatt of electricity in the first two decades of India’s independence. Yet, such was the pride associated with these ‘crown jewels’ that Mrs Gandhi’s government indulged their guzzling of foreign exchange with a wink and a nudge. The hypocrisy of self-reliance was complete.

With incantations of “appropriate technology” ringing in universities and research institutions—led often by nuclear and defence scientists like Homi Sethna and B.D. Nag Chaudhuri—jugaad came to be valourised in India. Innovation was best if it was frugal. Self-reliance in technology had unfortunately come to suggest that India should make do with little: the grandness of ambition and the Nehruvian “scientific temper” struggled to succeed against the cynical machinations of politics.

With Atmanirbhar Bharat, Modi has railroaded India back on to that jaded quest for self-reliance, and lessons from history should give him pause. Unlike some who occupied the high office before him, Modi stands out for his unapologetic championship of technology. His first term coincided with India’s gradual integration with global markets yielding fruits, and offering the consumer unprecedented and affordable access to electronic and digital technologies. To erect barriers now to such access would be to turn the clock back on India’s technological advancement by decades, with lasting consequences for the Indian economy, and even the Indian psyche.

Modi’s crusade for self-reliance is different from those of his predecessors in that he sees technological advancement as essential not only to material prosperity, but also spiritual self-actualisation. Here, he must heed the experience of Meiji Japan, where the state similarly placed an ancient civilisation at the perilous crossroads of technology, religion and culture. The Meiji pursuit of rapid, industrial “modernisation” was intimately linked to the state’s takeover of religious and cultural institutions, which became vehicles for the cult of Shintoism. And state Shintoism, in turn, fostered racial superiority, ethno-chauvinism, “political absolutism […] and the negation of democracy”, all of which fuelled imperial Japan’s aggression, and eventually, its humiliating defeat in World War II.

To close India to the world in the hope that it will realise its technological and spiritual destiny on its own would be a folly. Modi, and those who follow him, must acknowledge that true atmanirbharta can only be realised if Indians are allowed to engage freely and openly with technology, and to decide for themselves its role in steering the country’s progress.

Midnight's Machines is shortlisted for the NIF Prize 2020.

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