Differences between the BJP and the RSS appear to have intensified over the government’s negotiations, which are believed to be in the final stages, on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Two days after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat urged the Centre not to “yield too much” in trade negotiations, the BJP reiterated that India cannot be a closed economy and that many segments are keen on the country moving ahead. The RCEP aims to group the 10 ASEAN countries with India, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan to form a trade bloc.
The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), the economic wing of the RSS, has announced that it will intensify its campaign against the RCEP and the 16-nation Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with a ten-day “nationwide protest” beginning Thursday. “The SJM announces a national protest and submission of memorandum to Prime Minister through district magistrates in each district,” it said.
However, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, BJP spokesperson on economic affairs, said not everyone in the industry is against RCEP. “RCEP, FTA and trade relationships are very important in the global arena for the domestic industry, economy and the common man. Therefore, the BJP has taken the initiative to call stakeholders from the industry, think tanks, activists and opinion makers to get their feedback. Many had concerns but there are many segments that want the country to move ahead in this direction with proper negotiations,” Agarwal told The Indian Express.
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“Trade negotiations are give and take. Apart from economic considerations, political and strategic considerations are important in any trade relation so they are also important in RCEP,” he said.
On Monday, a roundtable conference was held at the BJP headquarters with the party’s general secretary (organisation) B L Santosh and Agarwal meeting stakeholders from the industry. Agarwal said the party would submit a report to the government on the issue.
On Tuesday, Bhagwat spoke about promoting swadeshi in his annual Vijayadashami address and cautioned the government against rushing into a deal.
SJM national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan said Agarwal should identify those in the roundtable meeting who wanted the government to go ahead with negotiations. “Let him name those who back it. If you bring those whose views are public and unlikely to change under any circumstances to claim that you have supporters, can we say that there are stakeholders who want these?” he said.
Mahajan said every sector, including steel, telecom, chemical and dairy, is opposing RCEP. “If you destroy these industries, what will happen to the economy? Our list of those who will get destroyed by this is long,” he said.
The SJM has pointed out that the country is facing a crisis in manufacturing and agriculture, which is resulting in job losses. “Though the crisis in manufacturing is due to the lack of a comprehensive industrial policy since 1991, the FTAs signed by India in the last decade played a major role in allowing cheap imports and hollowing out Indian manufacturing. In 2018-19, India had a trade deficit with 11 of the 16 RCEP negotiating countries. In the previous year, India had a US$104 billion trade deficit with RCEP countries, and more than half of this was with China,” Mahajan said.
The SJM leader said those who argue that RCEP would increase the competitiveness of Indian manufacturing should look at the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement 1. “ITA1 is responsible for the virtual decimation of India’s hardware industry,” he said.
“The RCEP will push the current and future generations to joblessness. The government should urgently publish studies carried out by it on the performance of FTAs and finalise and publish the Parliamentary standing committee report on FTA,” Mahajan said.
The SJM had held protests and launched an agitation against central government policies during the NDA-1 regime, too.
BJP’s Agarwal, however, said that it is “wrong to say that everybody is opposing the RCEP”. “India cannot be a closed economy. We cannot ignore the whole trade block. We know that there are genuine concerns of the industry and they will be taken care of in negotiations,” he said.