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Modi did well to pitch India in stand-alone terms at Davos

Author: Indrani Bagchi
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: January 24, 2018
URL:   https://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/et-commentary/modi-did-well-to-pitch-india-in-stand-alone-terms-at-davos/

This time last year, globalisation’s Brahmins were drowning their sorrows in snowbound Davos, mourning the loss of their star performer, the US. Donald Trump thumbed his nose at their rhetoric, called them out of touch with reality and basically junked the economic template that went by the name of Davos Consensus. Enter Xi Jinping. The Chinese president, who was the plenary speaker at Davos in 2017, brought his own brand of snake oil: globalisation with Chinese characteristics. Xi was salve to the western soul, hurting from aTrumpian blow they had not anticipated, a monstrous anathema to the entire ‘liberal’ edifice they had built. It was Xi who told them globalisation was not dead, it had a new home in the Chinese consciousness.

The sceptics grunted. Who wouldn’t, when you went beyond the words? In the last year, Chinese globalisation has meant the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the world is turning cool to the invitation. A year later, the world is treated to a kinder, gentler vision of a new global order — “a cooperative, harmonious, sharing and caring world” — as Narendra Modi took the dais in Davos this week. For Modi himself, it’s another journey of vindication. After 2002, it wasn’t only US and Europe that boycotted him. He had been invited to Davos, but was ‘disinvited’, something he did not forget. It was only after some serious penitence by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that Modi relented.

Davos did not disappoint. Modi pumped flesh, talked business, answered all questions, referred to people by their first names, almost like a Davos junkie. Coming barely a week before the Budget, the broader economic message was fairly clear: his reforms programme will continue despite looming elections, something he has been asserting lately.

On a larger scale, Davos is an occasion to position India differently. India’s growth is part of the solution to the ‘fractured’ world. Modi’s pitch was not new. But in the rarefied air of the magic mountain, democracy and growth have a different resonance, echoing with ancient Vedic shlokas. Modi’s pitch on “attractive India” goes beyond attracting investment. It’s intended to speak to the developed world of India’s newly articulated aspiration to become a ‘leading’ power.

No Space for Errorists

Globally, it means India taking a stand on key issues, owning them, in a sense, both in the hard and soft power space. If Trump abandoned the climate change agenda, India has adopted it.

This was a message Modi had given to European leaders in 2017, and will be on full display when India and 40 other countries unveil the International Solar Alliance. India’s strategic relationship with a number of European powers, indeed with EU itself, now goes through a ‘clean and green’ agenda. In other words, if India has to grow in a way that delivers the economic goods without the environmental damage, it will be a unique development in world history.

Terrorism is the other big area — Modi touched on the “good and bad terrorists” theme, and that has implications beyond Pakistan. In the last few years, India has stitched more counterterrorism cooperation pacts with different countries than ever before, showing how this issue remains on top of the Indian mindspace.

Since only the US does soft power better than India, that aspect is not a surprise — ancient Indian culture as balm to pained souls, yoga for a ‘cleaner’ body and mind… these are familiar themes and remain attractive in different parts of the world. It was important, too, for India to pitch itself in stand-alone terms. India’s recent ‘China whine’ was beginning to grate. Yes, China is a challenge. It is a ‘disruptive’ power. Deal with it. But pitching India’s rise as a counterpoise robs us of the very uniqueness we are trying to convey.

The US appears to be ceding space and China appears to be picking it up. Both these assumptions are exaggerated. But that itself is creating the necessary space for India’s rise. India’s positioning of itself as a new pole is predicated not only on the ease of doing business or ashtanga yoga, but a‘khichdi’ power, an eclectic array of a billion impulses. It’s how we shape these impulses that will define us — although we don’t seem to be doing such a great job of it right now, as a simple Bollywood movie on a poem about a queen is driving out-of-limelight Rajputs nuts.

Talk the Walk

But what is it with our leaders who prefer to address domestic audiences from outside the country? First it was Rahul Gandhi in Berkeley. Now it’s Modi, who in Davos for the first time addressed the current churn in Indian society talking about the “lack of understanding among interest groups and communities. There are obvious inequalities in incomes and opportunities.

There are disparities and divides in distribution of assets and resources. But patience has given way to passion. Everyone is trying to outdo and overpower the other while staking claim to amenities and entitlements.” He has to find the right language to say the same things at home.

Modi in Davos is a slightly different Modi. For a political leader who made such exhaustive use of social media for campaign and governance, he has clearly turned a sceptic — “social media… is (only) connecting us, not integrating. We are talking, not listening.”
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