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India’s Prime Minister Modi at the World Economic Forum in Davos

"World Economic Forum 2017" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by U.S. Embassy Bern, Switzerland

PM Modi was this year’s opening key note speaker at the WEF in Davos. You would have to go back 21 years to see the Indian Prime Minister come to Davos with a big government and business delegation. For this year’s closing speech the organisers had invited US President Trump; he came, met fifteen of the biggest business leaders for dinner (“I have now fifteen new friends, great!”), spoke and left. What he said was articulate and coherent, sort of “decent version” of otherwise erratic statements about ill-conceived economic policies, and it was one big and one-dimensional “commercial” inviting the world to bring all the money to America for investments in the greatest place and the most thriving economy of the world. Upon Professor Schwab’s prepared question, President Trump did not hesitate to state that all his life he had been best at making money, a lot of money. So much for the closing highlight of the informal summit of world leaders. But what about the message of the opening address, by PM Modi? That was more philosophical, when he elaborated on fractures of the world, starting with fracture at the individual level, at the level of human mind and heart. According to PM Modi, India has learnt to work on the level of mind: “India is the land which has the solution for this all pervasive problem of fracture”. For philosophers, historians and other academics, this can be understood as a reference to India’s perennial religious foundations. But did international business leaders trying to make sense of economic involvement in India understand the challenges this way? At least, PM Modi believes that control over mind is India’s soft power, in fact India’s real power, and: “The whole world has started recognizing it.” Continuing on fracture and violence, he stated that “we do not venture or advocate violence even through words or mind leave alone deliberate action.” Probably, the Muslim community regularly victim of Hindu persecution until today, sees it differently. Be it reminded that ten years ago, Narendra Modi, then Gujarati Chief Minister, was barred from coming to Davos because of his responsibility in the violent persecution of Muslims in Gujarat six years earlier. And when hearing Modi saying that India rushed to help people in need whether in neighbourhood or faraway locations and “ we have fought wars when no strategic interests of our own were involved”, one remembers India’s wars with China or Pakistan, its intervention which led to the creation of Bangladesh or the intervention in Sri Lanka’s civil war. They were all fought for strategic interests. Speaking with well-deserved pride of India’s democracy, he couldn’t help but stating that India as largest Democracy on earth “is also the fastest growing major economy”. It is not; among the very big it is still China. But the reference to his confidence that “Democracies can, will and must work in the years and decades to come” is a clear political statement of our liking against wide-spread admiration among leaders in the democratic West for undemocratic China and the ease with which one can do business with that China, as they say. What is the message of this column? PM Modi has a strong case when speaking of the challenges to reform India’s inherited inertia, when speaking of his courage to do the right things in the right directions, or, as we have stated repeatedly in this column, when redefining India’s foreign relations on the basis of a fresh look at strategic interests. But his key note speech addressed to world leaders gathered in Davos was certainly not the appropriate “commercial” for bringing foreign business and investment capital to India. Too much of his assertions of what is going to happen in India in the way of reforms is still at the stage of wishful thinking. On this, the US President’s promises, on his side, for those who consider bringing their money (back) to America were certainly more convincing, at least for those who do not care about governance style and who do not fear that this president may not survive his first term in office, let alone his second year in office. Indians, and the rest of the world, should hope that Modi’s genuine concept for India’s future goes beyond his Davos speech.

29th January 2018 / Philippe Welti

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