Every year, starting late January and continuing until the Budget is presented on the last day of February, a host of delegations representing all kinds of industry sectors, interests and ideologies make their way to the finance minister's imposing North Block office. They all have myriad suggestions that they hope the minister will include in his Budget proposals. This year's procession has begun as well. But this time it includes two delegations whose suggestions will be taken much more seriously than most others. On January 28, a five-member team of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the economic wing of the RSS, met Minister of State of Finance, Jayant Sinha. A few days earlier, a delegation of senior leaders of the RSS itself had conferred with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
Changed government view on genetically modified (GM) agricultural products, blocked GM clinical trials
Persuaded government to withdraw the new Land Acquisition Bill
Restrained government from allowing FDI in e-commerce retail
Prevented government from making changes in patent rules
Influenced government position on WTO-related issues
Proposed the setting up of the Micro Units Development and Refi nancing Agency (MUDRA) Bank
Narendra Modi's ambitious programme of Power for All by 2022, infl uenced by RSS' Antyodaya concept
Alongside its commitment to Hindutva and cultural nationalism, the RSS also has very definite ideas on the direction the Indian economy should take, and has been forcefully conveying these to the government from the time the NDA came to power in May 2014. Often the government has listened. Sources maintain, for instance, that the decision last August to withdraw six controversial amendments to the land acquisition bill and leave it to individual states to make changes if any was taken at the behest of the RSS. "We explained to the government that the bill was not good for it politically," says an RSS leader, who does not want to be identified. "Even if the government managed to push it through with the earlier amendments by calling a joint session of Parliament, the states would have to ratify it and that would take another two years."
Similarly, the RSS and the SJM were responsible for the government stopping field trials of genetically modified crops, restraining itself on labour reforms, which would have made hiring and firing easier, and taking the position it did on food security at the World Trade Organization (WTO). "For labour reforms too, we pushed the government to take the state legislature route and leave it to the states to decide how far they want to go," says the same RSS leader. "Anyway, it is the states that have to implement any laws passed relating to labour or land acquisition."The RSS and SJM had been tracking economic developments closely even during the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, often providing BJP leaders - then in opposition - the inputs needed to question the government's moves. It was Ashwani Mahajan, National Co-convener of the SJM, for instance, who kept track of WTO developments and briefed leaders like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj for their attacks in Parliament on the stance the then Commerce Minister Anand Sharma had taken at the WTO meeting in Bali, in December 2013. With developed nations at the WTO opposing the developing countries' right to sell food grains at prices lower than the limits prescribed in the WTO agreement on agriculture, Sharma had agreed to a 'temporary peace' clause on the issue, which essentially deferred a decision for four years.
In contrast, at the next WTO meet in Nairobi in December 2014, NDA Commerce Minister Nirmala Seetharaman insisted on India's right to sell food grains at a price it chose and managed to get the US and other nations to withdraw their objections. Mahajan, along with seven other delegates, had accompanied her, continually giving her inputs. "I texted her at once after we succeeded: 'You have done a good job'," says Mahajan.Last March, at the RSS' Pratinidhi Sabha meeting in Delhi, two heavyweights, Bhaiyyaji Joshi and Krishna Gopal, were assigned the task of coordinating with the government on economic issues. The RSS has also backed a number of think tanks relating to different aspects of the economy to monitor and guide the government. These include the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) to look into macro-economic issues, headed by Chandigarh-based economist Subhash Sharma; the National Action Committee on Public Private Partnerships, headed by Amarjit Chopra and Anil Sharma, both Delhi-based chartered accountants; the Bharat Solar Development Forum (BSDF) headed by Bhagwati Prasad, Vice Chancellor of Pacific University, Udaipur, which keeps a close watch on the ambitious solar power thrust of the government and the Defence Innovators & Industry Association (DIIA), a forum for defence manufacturers, headed by Ashwani Mahajan. "These think tanks help us understand the issues involved in different sectors, and thereby assist the RSS top brass, keeping it clued in," says Sharma of CEPR.
"We don't intervene on a daily basis, but if the government deviates from our core agenda, we lodge our protest and put forth our point of view," says a top RSS leader, preferring anonymity. "The current leadership is much more amenable to the RSS' viewpoint than the previous NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee." A veteran BJP leader, who also wants to remain unnamed, agrees. "Under Vajpayee, the RSS managed to get some of its people appointed as heads of government institutions, but failed to influence economic policy," he says. A top union minister, too, acknowledges RSS' shadow over the government. "It gives us inputs, but we take decisions in accordance with government policy."
So, what does the RSS want in this year's Budget? It is keen that the government continues on its present investment-oriented growth, but is wary about the welcoming stance adopted towards foreign capital. "We are pushing for more investment in the social and rural sectors, more funds for village roads and schools, and rural healthcare," says the RSS leader quoted earlier. On disinvestment, it has underlined that it would prefer retail equity sales of PSU shares and not their strategic offloading to select corporate houses. Its chief reservation is with foreign direct investment (FDI). "The government needs to rethink its premise that only large quantities of FDI can drive growth," says Kashmiri Lal, SJM leader. "Why is the rupee depreciating despite the record FDI inflows of late?" Mahajan wants the government to impose penalties on companies that depend on foreign funds and technology transfer. "The 'Make in India' initiative is laudable, but the government must encourage Indian companies to do so, not foreign ones," he says.
On this score, however, it is unlikely the BJP will listen. As Seshadri Chari, former editor of the RSS' mouthpiece, Organiser, but now a BJP member, says: "You need to have a national perspective and national interest in mind while setting an economic agenda. No emerging market can reject FDI outright. But it should come in on our terms and not those of the investors."