This world wants to see hard power, not counsel. India at Davos will remain a mutual admiration society until only Indians fill the halls at India sessions while the world gives a miss.

After “India Everywhere” in 2006 and “India Inclusive” in 2011, this year was India’s third coming at Davos. The big difference: unlike the two earlier occasions, the Indian prime minister came to Davos.

The last Indian PM to come here was Deve Gowda in 1997 and no one took note. Narendra Modi is, however, a prime minister with substance and style. He has a sweeping majority in Parliament, his party and allies rule 19 states, and he controls his party in a manner nobody has done since Indira Gandhi and, we should also note, no one leader in a major democracy does today. Modi, a happy traveller, has also built a formidable equity with world leaders and made his own style contribution to summiteering: the big, lingering hug.

His presence was also a big breakthrough for the World Economic Forum, and its founder Klaus Schwab. As with much else to do with Narendra Modi, there is a back-story from his Gujarat years to the World Economic Forum too. He embraced WEF early enough as Gujarat chief minister and even visited its brand-extension, the Summer Davos in Dalian, 2007. In fact, I had moderated the panel there, and noted that despite being asked several questions on domestic politics, he had firmly stated that he didn’t come there as a partisan and would not bring our domestic issues there. It was impressive.

A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrintDomestic politics, however, visited Davos as his popularity with Indian industry rose and he was sought after for the big global event. The UPA government let the World Economic Forum know that it wouldn’t appreciate an invitation to him. Modi was right to believe that he had been disinvited under political pressure. That is why his government had been lukewarm to Davos the past three years.

WEF did everything possible to make amends. He was offered the opening plenary that global leaders covet—last year China’s Xi Jinping had it. And the competition this year was more formidable. WEF got an unprecedented line-up of world leaders: Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Theresa May, Benjamin Netanyahu and Angela Merkel.

Modi drew a full hall. He made some significant points on Trump’s America, Xi’s China and the rising strategic importance of data as I had noted earlier. There was also a great deal of advice, based on ancient Indian culture and wisdom.

The speech continued to be a talking point, although with a twist. For the four days following his opener, every Indian you came across asked you the same question: so what do you think of the PM’s speech? And before you could answer, told you his own view. In superlatives. So here is the twist: you hardly met any non-Indian who asked you that same question.

Similarly, the international media took no more than fleeting, mention-in-dispatches note of the Modi presence. Many in the sizeable Indian group noted this with resentment and blamed “Western media biases”. The facts, however, are to the contrary today. The West is annoyed with China, as is the big, global business community. They all want India as a successful counter and refuge for their capital.

Affection for India has grown over the past few years, particularly as more global businesses get bloody-nosed in China. So has the expectation. The world wants India to succeed. It also worries now that India over-promises and under-delivers. With Modi’s rise, it had expected much bigger reforms, and economic and strategic stability.

This has been the most optimistic and buzziest Davos in years. The energy is of a different scale now with global growth booming again: 3.9 per cent. There are deals and money to be made. Davos, behind all the talk of improving the state of the world, is a what’s-in-it-for-me club. It is polite and may not say so, but it has no time for sermons, however ancient and sound the wisdom you bring. This isn’t a forum to warm up to even Swami Vivekananda.

There is plenty of India on the Davos equivalent of High Street, the Promenade. Government of India-CII, Chandrababu Naidu’s Andhra, Devendra Fadnavis’s Maharashtra, TCS, Infosys and Wipro all have lounges and presence astride it. The returns for all of this, and the presence of the prime minister, several important cabinet and chief ministers, are limited.

That is because however good a message and its deliverer (in this case Modi) may be, ultimately it is the product it is selling that matters. A growth rate of 7 per cent or thereabouts is good, but has limitations when your economy is one-fifth China’s size and population about equal. It’s a cruel world. It also asks you rough questions. Like, if you really have a strong government now, how come it still hasn’t repealed the Vodafone retrospective amendment?

When India had its first big show here a decade ago, growth was crossing 9 per cent (under the old formula), tech companies were booming and outsourcing had established Bangalore as the new Silicon Valley. Even an “appointed” prime minister like Manmohan Singh, blessed with not a fraction of the oratorical brilliance of Modi, would have made some buzz. That he wanted to come, but was not “allowed” by the anti-globalisation Left, who threatened to walk out (as Rahul Bajaj told the media here), is a tragedy.

Today, we have a strong leader with global stature who knows what message to deliver and how, but the underlying product is jaded. From 2006 to 2011 to 2018, India’s pitch continues to be what it sees as its soft power: food (plenty of it, including from Naidu’s Andhra), Bollywood, crafts, spirituality and now yoga. But there are limits to how far such soft power can take a nation of strategic dimensions and ambition. Pure soft power works for a country like tiny Thailand: it counted 36 million tourists last year compared to India’s 10.2 million, and has become a global hub for medical tourism, from bypasses, transplants to cosmetic surgeries and de-addiction. India has, meanwhile, got caught in its own contradictions and self-inflicted social discords.

The world now wants India to speak the language of hard (not military) power. Since India wants a permanent seat on the Security Council, why is it not being more assertive at such forums on global strategic issues? Freedom of navigation, respect for sovereign nations’ maritime and territorial rights, a rule-based order of global justice and so on. Just a couple of statements on these would have made the headlines India and Modi deserved.

What makes this such a fascinating week is that India displayed both its soft (Davos) and hard (10 ASEAN leaders on Republic Day) power at the same time. It is a brilliant idea and achievement to get leaders of 10 powerful eastern nations on our Republic Day. A stronger message on rule-based maritime regimes, respect for sovereignty would have harmonised with India’s Act-East push. It would have also neatly linked the Davos message to Republic Day diplomacy. India missed that trick.

To outsiders, it seems that after having over-promised and underperformed on the economy over the past decade, India also did this time something quite atypical of it: it punched below its weight. The tough fact is, India is still failing the crucial Davos test: India sessions are still as filled with fellow Indians as they were 10 years back. Unless the world starts lining up to attend these, India won’t have arrived on the world scene, never mind our chronic love of self-congratulation.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. While comparing with China, the advantage we have,
    1.The economy is one fifth but the population is close to it, so we have more scope of business,
    2. Facts are that we are very poor in manufacturing even after 70 years post independence. PM is trying big,we need to support him on his endeavours.He is running out of time.
    3.Our manuscripts like Gita teaches to make efforts of your best,

  2. While comparing with China, the advantage we have,
    1.The economy is one fifth but the population is close to it, so we have more scope of business,
    2. Facts are that we are very poor in manufacturing even after 70 years post independence. PM island trying big,we need to support him on his endeavours.He is running out of time.
    3.Our manuscripts like Gita teaches to make efforts of your best,

  3. Thailand, with a population of 68 million, is not exactly tiny.

    However, scaling its population to India’s, India should be getting about 500 million tourists per year! Can you imagine what that would do for India’s economy and employment?

    And your figure of 10.2 million tourists in India includes about 60% NRIs/OCIs. So the real number of international tourists is about 4 million. In comparison, tiny Venice (pop. 60,000) gets about 9.8 million per year, out of which 3.9 million are foreign tourists, about the same number as the whole of India gets.

    The reasons for the low number are not too difficult to understand.

    As an example, when you land at Delhi airport, you do not even realize that it is the capital of a great country of 1.3 billion people. You have the Welcome signs before immigration only in two languages: English and Hindi. Is Delhi the capital of only North India?

    As as a second example: recently after passing though immigration control , I tried two SBI ATM machines. Both did not work. Then I tried to change a 50 Euro note at Thomas Cook. The lady, in her 20s and very modern, not only wanted a copy of my passport, but also of my OCI card! I told her that I have not seen this anywhere in the world: a photo ID is sufficient. I’d just come out of immigration and she wanted to see my Indian visa (OCI)? It’s this kind of stupidity that puts off tourists.

  4. Fareed Zakaria told senior Indian journalists that ten years ago, global CEOs were bullish on India. They now find their China businesses five times larger than their Indian portfolios, and growing faster. Starbucks coffee, high end German cars, the Chinese market is a significant contributor to revenues and profits. India has to get there.

  5. The headlines and news going out of India: Dalit students committing suicide, Cancer is caused by sins, Men are murdered for cows, Darwins theory is wrong. You expect Anyone in the world to take India seriously? A movie release has led to law and order anarchy. A movie release. Forget hard power. India is at best a giant joke, and no amount of good speeches – given everyone knows Modi is prone to just talk – can change that narrative. Investors confidence doesn’t hinge on elocution. At best you win more state elections. Hard power needs a leader in control of law and order over his hoardes. Forget Davos, India’s gone to Mars and is not taken seriously. The world wants India to succeed, but the world wants to make money and frankly doesn’t give a damn about Mr Strong Leader

  6. The speech was almost a pat on the back for personal achievement of having come this far in the career. As usual, it was long-winded. The articulation of vision, policy, and initiatives was weak. The roadmap looks confused. The specific outcomes are either not visible or deliberately kept non-transparent. And the silence on fundamental issues such as the state of law and order in most parts of the country is deafening. Wellness is NOT exactly hard-power. Even Maldives can offer that. And India cannot even become a coveted destination for those seeking ‘wellness’ with such neasuating law and order, and pollution. Personal charisma has a short life-cycle, and is NOT a panacea for long-term health of the country. Sadly, we haven’t learnt anything from the fickle reign of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the most charismatic PM India has ever had.

  7. What big-business want is decent consumer base capable of buying what they produce, and give adequate return to their investment. As Shekhar rightly said, Davos is always a ‘what’s my gain’ conscious club!
    With just 3% of India’s middle-class population,(ref recent The Economist’ article) naturally, it is difficult to attract the big-business club to India, how grand the rhetoric of Indian PM.

  8. Modi is completely exposed ,both inside the country,and outside.The P.M. has miserably failed to deliver onthe ground.Mere oratory will not last long.One cannot cheat the people for along time.

  9. Maybe its time that people call out to opposition to stop using our country as a punching bag for their personal agendas. Sadly, like a crab, they tend to pull down the positives & highlight only the negatives. For a country to progress
    & be strong in the world, the infighting needs to remain inside the country, to be sorted out amongst the citizens. It must be discussed by opposition with the world. No need to wash the dirty laundry in public. The opposition is as much responsible for the world to take India lightly as much as the govt is.

  10. Correction:
    Maybe its time that people call out to opposition to stop using our country as a punching bag for their personal agendas. Sadly, like a crab, they tend to pull down the positives & highlight only the negatives. For a country to progress & be strong in the world, the infighting needs to remain inside the country, to be sorted out amongst the citizens. It must NOT be discussed by opposition with the world. No need to wash the dirty laundry in public. The opposition is as much responsible for the world to take India lightly as much as the govt is.

  11. with 30% population disenfranchised , continuous killings of children in kashmir . Indian TV may not be screaming about it . But the world knows it . Yes world leaders will come to sell their products. But punching below its weight , come of it . Stop dreaming

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