Modi’s sales pitch at Davos a commercial sermon

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The Prime Minister was himself – prolix, expansive and much too self-righteous

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindi speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on January 23 was wearying. though it had some good points, which were lost in the haze of evangelical spirituality, something India has been marketing for more than a century. The world leaders of business must have yawned through the long-winded speech with its exhortations from Sanskrit texts. Mr Modi could have delivered a forceful political message if only he had resisted the temptation of indulging in modern India’s favourite obsession of wanting to prove to the Western world that India has all the answers to all the problems. Hear the Prime Minister’s peroration:

“Thus, India offers you everything that you seek from and for your life.

Therefore, my advice to you is that:

If you want wealth with wellness, work in India;

If you want peace with prosperity, live in India;

If you want health with whole life, be in India.

And our promise is that your agenda will be part of our destiny. We both will have a shared and successful future.”

Somehow the tone of it does not sound right. It sounds more like an advertisement for Indian tourism. It lacks substance and seriousness because of its exaggerated claims.

And he should have avoided the obvious rhetorical flourishes like: “You might have seen in the recent past that more than 1.25 billion Indians accepted in one voice and moved towards a less cash society and unified tax system in the form of GST.” If more than 1.25 billion Indians had spoken in one voice then India would be a perfect case of a bad democracy. Only under dictatorial regimes do people speak in one voice. The truth is Indians never do and it is a blessing that Indians do not speak in one voice. Someone has to remind Mr Modi that democracy means many different voices and not one voice.

He has made some sharp points, which go to the heart of the matter. He played a little too pompously over the word ‘fracture’ and giving it an unconvincing metaphysical spin by talking about the ‘fracture’ at three levels – individual, national and international. It was something that a good copy editor would have mercilessly struck out, because it would obfuscate the important issues he had talked about.

His most important and pertinent remarks include:

“In today’s time, in the first instance, it appears that media; especially the social media is connecting us. However, it’s just connecting, not integrating.”

“We must demonstrate by action that new technology will not take away jobs. Rather, it will create new jobs in newer areas and manners.”

“You cannot continue to sell unless you enhance purchasing power of the common people. We cannot keep producing goods; without producing good income.”

The long litany of all that his government had done in the last three-and-a-half years was out of place in Davos. What he wanted to say on that heading he had said it to the global CEOs he had addressed earlier. For his keynote address he should have confined himself to the problem of globalization hitting a road block. He had hinted at it when he said that globalization has lost its sheen and that protectionism is as much a threat as terrorism and climate change are. He could have, and he should have, dealt on the issue of the new challenges that globalization is facing.

It is interesting that India and China should be speaking up for globalisation and that they are demanding that tariff barriers should be pulled down. Chinese President Xi Jingping and the Indian Prime minister, each in their own way, have become strong spokesmen for free markets. But the contradiction is this. China wants to step up exports and it does not want any barriers by way of tariifs, but it is not willing to open up its markets for other countries. Even India faces barriers when it comes to exports from India to China. Simialrly, Mr Modi wants global investors to come to India, and he wants them to make India their manufacturing base. But his government is not too enthusiastic about allowing foreign goods into India. This is indeed the bone of contention over Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail. American manufacturers are eyeing the large market of 300 million plus middle class Indians. They also want to capture the Indian defence market. Modi government is keen on indigenising defence production. It is a sensible idea. But it poses chalenges of its own in the global context. It would be unrealistic to expect American arms manufactures to set base in India for the benefit of India. There is an undeclared conflict of national interests.

Both Mr Modi and Mr Xi will have to accept the fact that globalisation is a two-way street. The question is whether India and China can hope to be just exporters. They will have to buy from the world as well. As rising powers, the two Aian giants have a different view of globalisation compared to the declining global powers like the United States and the European Union. But India and China will have to learn the art of reciprocity if they want to be world leaders.

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