Selling brand India, tough task for Modi

The tapestry of Digital India, drawn by PM Modi, seems surreal given the ground realities of India.

His political rivals mock him for heading a “suit boot ki sarkar”. But even his detractors will have to concede that amidst the suited booted CEOs of some of world’s largest MNCs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands tall. He presents an alluring and enticing vision for India.

During his recent visit to the United States, his round table discussion with the heads of eight finance companies in New York included giants like Blackstone, Warburg Pincus, KKR Co, General Atlantis, AIG Insurance, Tiger Global and New York State Retirement Fund, who control billions of dollars.

The discussion with 15 leaders of media and entertainment industry led by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch – whose business interests are spread over 30 countries, controlling 42 per cent world media – resulted in the latter hailing Modi as the best leader India has seen since independence.

The dinner with 42 CEOs of American MNCs, with a collective worth of over US$ 4.5 trillion, was attended, among others, by the heads of Lockheed Martin, Ford, IBM, Boeing International, Goldman Sach, City Group, Pepsico, Time, SanDisk and Master Card. Modi reiterated his commitment to reforms and improving the ease of doing business and outlined mega projects which were on the government’s priority list.

Making a strong pitch for investment in India, he stressed the fact that FDI in India has gone up by 40 per cent while it has declined in rest of the world, apparently indicative of investors’ confidence in India. Most CEOs felt the country off-ered huge opportunities and that Modi was serious about making it investment friendly.

However, they were concer-ned about continuing bureaucratic hurdles, slow pace of deregulation, creaky infrastructure, unpredictable tax regime, inadequate bankruptcy and contract laws, dispute resolution mechanism and political logjam which prevented the government from going ahead on land acquisition bill and the GST. The general sentiment was, “we will continue to wait and watch.”

Modi made a strong pitch for getting India on the high table of the UNSC as a permanent member. While hosting the G-4 summit – first since 2004, attended by German chancellor, Japanese prime minister and the Brazilian president – is being seen as another feather in his cap by his admirers, his BJP colleague and former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha remarked, “G-4 have negligible chances notwithstanding all the media hype”.

None can question the soundness of Modi’s arguments in favour of UN reforms and inclusion of “world’s largest democracies, major locomotives of global economy and major voices from major continents” to make the UN more representative, credible and  equipped to address the challenges of the 21st century. However, seeing the reform process through a fixed time frame during the 70th session of the UNGA is unrealistic in the face of strong resistance from China and Pakistan.

Silicon Valley meet

Modi also interacted with the ‘who’s who’ of Silicon Valley. The Town Hall meeting with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was, however, too genteel to ruffle any feathers. The reception by the Indian community at SAP Centre was a repetition of his earlier performances abroad. Barring a strong plea for the UN to define terrorism and underline the role of youth and ‘brain gain’, Modi’s speech sounded as though he was addressing his constituency back home on the eve of Bihar elections.

The tapestry of Digital India, drawn by Modi, seems surreal given the ground realities of India. If a selfie with father could save a girl child, why do we have 3.5 million cases of female infanticide in Punjab every year? If farmers could get better price for their produce just by having broadband mobiles in their hands, why do many of them  commit suicide? Will thousands of schools in rural India, which don’t have a roof over their heads or teachers on most  days, be able to impart education through mobile phones?

Modi says Digital India is an enterprise for India’s transformation on a scale that is, perhaps, unmatched in human history. But, Silicon Valley thrives on individuality, creativity, dissent and innovation; we must create a similar eco system.

Modi pressed for US support for India’s membership in International Export Control regime and the APEC. In a joint statement, the US conveyed its support to India for the permanent seat of the UNSC. With the orders for supply of Apache and Chinook helicopters worth US$ 3.1 billion, the US wanted India’s  firm commitment about climate change before the December Paris meet.

Modi reiterated commitment on climate change without affecting ability to meet the development aspirations and emphasised the priority of finance and technology for the developing world. India’s announcement to cap its carbon emission intensity by 2030 is a step in the right direction though it falls short of American expectations.

Modi told the NRI audience in San Jose that 21st century could well be India’s century. Steve Jobs once said, “we must not stop dreaming dreams.” And, India has miles to go before fulfilling her dreams.

(The writer is former ambassador and Founding president, Indo-American Friendship Association, New Delhi)

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