The Congress on Monday took credit for the government’s decision to not join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, trade bloc. The RCEP is a free-trade agreement between 16 countries across the Asia-Pacific region that aims to reduce tariffs and duties between member countries so that goods and services can flow freely between them. It will become the world’s largest trade bloc when created.

“A forceful opposition by Congress and Rahul Gandhi ensures that BJP government backs down from bartering the interests of farmers, dairy producers, fishermen, small and medium businesses at the altar of political expediency,” said the party’s spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala. “A victory for all fighting for protecting national interests.”

Surjewala said signing the RCEP would have been catastrophic, given the “rampant unemployment, a sinking economy and deep agrarian crisis emanating from utter mismanagement of economy by the BJP government”. He said the Narendra Modi government was about to sign the deal without addressing people’s genuine concerns.

“India’s farmers and MSMEs [micro, medium and small scale industries] had genuine unaddressed concerns about 1. circumvention of rules of origin to dump Chinese goods; 2. absence of safeguards to prevent against import surges at the cost of domestic industry; 3. no assurance on market access for service and IT industry,” Surjewala said.

Earlier in the day, former party President Rahul Gandhi said the proposed free trade deal would flood the country with cheap goods and cause millions to lose their jobs. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in response, pointed out that the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government had entered RCEP negotiations in 2012. It added that trade deficit with China increased 23 times from $1.9 billion (Rs 13,453 crore in current exchange rates) in 2005 to $44.8 billion (Rs 3.17 lakh crore) in 2014. “Now PM Modi is cleaning your mess,” the BJP added.

Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said the Modi government conducting negotiations was akin to a “compounder operating on a patient” in the absence of a doctor, Hindustan Times reported. “The Free Trade Agreement and RCEP, we were not against it, in fact, it started in our time,” he said. “The doctor had given the dates to the patient for operation and meanwhile, the doctor got transferred and compounder operated on patient.”

Azad pointed out that India had a $70-billion trade deficit (Rs 4.95 lakh crore) with China. “China is dumping its products in world markets; after RCEP several products of China would be dumped in Indian markets,” he said. “Will China allow access to our products in its markets? There is no discussion on this issue.”

‘A bold move,’ say RSS and BJP

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which is the economic wing of the ruling party’s ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, also congratulated Modi for not signing the deal.

“We welcome the PM’s decisions and congratulate him for taking such a bold move that is in favour of the country and its economy,” Swadeshi Jagran Manch National Co-convener Ashwani Mahajan told Hindustan Times. “The decision not to go ahead will boost Make in India, which has been a flagship scheme of the government to give a fillip to production as well as employment.”

Union Home Minister and BJP President Amit Shah also praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for stepping out of the agreement. “India’s decision to not sign RCEP is a result of PM Narendra Modi’s strong leadership and unflinching resolve to ensure national interest in all circumstances,” Shah claimed. “It shall ensure support to our farmers, MSMEs, dairy and manufacturing sector, pharmaceutical, steel and chemical industries.”

He alleged that the previous UPA government was weak and could not protect India’s national interest in the matter.

BJP Working President Jagat Prakash Nadda also congratulated the prime minister, calling him a tough negotiator whose leadership had been decisive. “India did not bow down to global pressure and give away its economic interests unlike previous Congress led governments which opened Indian market through weak FTAs [Free Trade Agreements],” Nadda said. “PM Narendra Modi ji has again shown his commitment to safeguard the interests of the poor.”

Modi, who addressed the RCEP Summit in Thailand’s Capital Bangkok earlier in the evening, said the current agreement “does not fully reflect the basic spirit and the agreed guiding principles” or India’s concerns. “When I measure the RCEP Agreement with respect to the interests of all Indians, I do not get a positive answer,” he said. “Therefore, neither the talisman of [Mahatma] Gandhiji nor my own conscience permits me to join the RCEP.”