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At Davos, Modi didn't say what the world wanted to hear

February 10, 2018 10:57 IST

'The world wants India to succeed. It also worries now that India over-promises and under-delivers,' says Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi gestures at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

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 went to Davos.

The last Indian PM to go there was H D Deve Gowda in 1997 and no one took note.

Narendra D 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 single 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 Modi, there is a back story from his Gujarat years to the WEF too.

He embraced the 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.

Domestic politics, however, visited Davos as his popularity with Indian industry rose and he was sought after for the big global event.

The United Progressive Alliance government let the WEF know that it would not 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.

The 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.

The 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. 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, he 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. The government of India-CII, Chandrababu Naidu's Andhra, Devendra Fadnavis' 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 ministers 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 which threatened to walk out (as Rahul Bajaj told the media in Davos) 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 UN 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 made it such a fascinating week was that India displayed both its soft (Davos) and hard (10 ASEAN leaders on Republic Day) power at the same time.

It was 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 Look-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.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

Shekhar Gupta