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Amazon 'East India Company': Economic Nationalism Under Modi Is Out of Control

An RSS-linked magazine recently targeted Amazon, calling it the "second generation" of the East India Company.

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<div class="paragraphs"><p>File photo of PM Modi. Image used for representational purposes.</p></div>
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After attacking Infosys recently, Panchjanya, an RSS-linked magazine, has now targeted Amazon, calling it the "second generation" of the East India Company and accusing it of corrupt practices.

Big businesses, and even the Central government itself, have often found itself in the line of fire amid raging economic nationalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had backed off from the RCEP — a retreat that ex-Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran called a “short-sighted move” that “left India out in the cold” — because of the relentless, no-holds-barred opposition by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the motherboard of the Hindu Right.

However, a slew of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) on India’s table, which Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal is crowing about, will finally have a smooth passage domestically, unlike the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) New Delhi opted out of in 2019 at the eleventh hour. Speaking exclusively to The Quint, SJM chief, Ashwini Mahajan, who almost singlehandedly forced India to dump the world’s largest trade deal, disclosed that he is in favour of FTAs, early harvest deals and Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreements (CECAs) that Piyush Goyal and Commerce and Industry Secretary B. V. R. Subrahmanyam are zealously pursuing. But should one take such claims with a pinch of salt?

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'No Objections'

“We have no objections. We are all for bilateral trade deals”, said Mahajan, senior RSS functionary and a Delhi School of Economics (DSE) alumni, who is much sought after by visiting special trade envoys like Australia’s Tony Abbott and ambassadors eyeing the Indian market as his concurrence is critical.

Turning its protectionist foreign trade policy on its head, the BJP government is currently negotiating deals with the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.

Talks are under way with the UK to clinch an early harvest deal by March 2022, which would ultimately lead to an FTA. The interim pact, according to a Commerce Ministry statement on Tuesday, would grant concessions on “key high priority products and services” in tariffs and market access. A similar exercise with Australia is ongoing.

Green-lighting FTAs, Mahajan said, “SJM is against multilateral agreements like WTO or plurilateral agreements like RCEP. Dealing with individual countries through FTAs is a far better option for safeguarding India’s economic interests.”

“In principle, we are not against FTAs but we do have our concerns”
Ashwini Mahajan, SJM chief

Listing “concerns”, Mahajan pointed out that any FTA with the EU would involve “agricultural and dairy products, Non-Agriculture Market Access, Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Plus and Data Exclusivity, which need to be properly addressed. Agriculture and dairy products will be key aspects of any FTA, with Australia, too.”

'Cooperate With UK & EU'

Mahajan said India should join hands with the UK which has left the EU and needs to enter into new agreements. “While safeguarding our agricultural and dairy farmers along with automobile, electronics and telecom industries, we can cooperate with the UK in electronics and telecom to lessen our dependence on China.”

“With the UAE and the GCC, there can be a give-and-take if our strategic interests are served. But we have to ensure that along with the interests of big corporates in India, the interests of the poorer sections are also served. The UAE and the GCC nations are keen to invest in India as they want to diversify their oversize investments in the US and European countries.”

But how is Mahajan going to ensure that India’s interests are not sacrificed in the FTAs that Goyal is in a tearing hurry to sign? I asked him whether Goyal, who never misses an opportunity to talk about his family’s long association with the RSS, is briefing him at least about the broad contours of the FTA-related negotiations.

“Look, trade is like war and negotiations must be done in great secrecy. But after the talks, when the texts are drafted, the Indian government will take all stakeholders — those who would be affected by the FTA — into confidence. If stakeholders have grievances, they are bound to come into the public domain and the SJM will then examine whether the terms are in our economic interest or not.”

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Giving Up Economic Nationalism

But Professor Biswajit Dhar of the Economics Department of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who left the Planning Commission in 2014 just before the BJP captured power, doesn’t foresee smooth sailing for FTAs despite the SJM’s backing for bilateral trade deals.

Indian farmers are already on the warpath and their agitation against the Modi government is a political hot potato before the Uttar Pradesh elections. So, Goyal has a very tough task on his hands regardless of the SJM’s backing.
Biswajit Dhar, Economist

“Many countries that Goyal is eager to enter into FTAs with have very strong agriculture and dairy farming — the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. And they are looking for an increased market in India. Can the SJM and the Bhartiya Kisan Morcha (BKM) give up their economic nationalism overnight? Indian farmers are already on the warpath and their agitation against the Modi government is a political hot potato before the Uttar Pradesh elections. So, Goyal has a very tough task on his hands regardless of the SJM’s backing.”

Highlighting Goyal’s admission last month that the trade deal with the US is off the table, Dhar said, “The US is one of the world’s leading agricultural exporters. In January 2020, Trump had signed an agreement for China to import a lot of agricultural products. The agricultural lobby in the US is very strong. Trump tried to do the same thing with India. India has a trade deficit with most countries but with the US, it has a trade surplus, which was and is an eyesore for the Americans. India could not accommodate US demands for agricultural imports in 2020 or in 2021, leading to a breakdown in trade talks.”

Dhar pointed out that like the US, the EU demands partner countries to strengthen their trade unions and labour rights. The EU wants its trading partners to enforce all the eight Core Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This requirement is impossible to meet given the rapid erosion of labour rights under the BJP rule. India’s new labour code makes hiring and firing easier, giving owners more flexibility in dealing with workers.

Importantly, even the RSS’s trade union wing, the Bharat Mazdoor Sabha (BMS), is opposing the BJP government’s new labour code, along with trade unions affiliated to the Congress Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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