Despite tall claims, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to hard sell his country at the recent Davos meet did not win universal applause.
This raises the question that would have seemed sacrilegious only a couple of years ago: Is reality finally catching up with the Indian prime minister and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party?
Modi usually relies on his image building exercises abroad even as opposition to his domestic financial policies and general governance gains momentum.
His aggressive foreign policy initiative is no more than an extension of Modi’s approach to the growing fundamentalist Hindutva threat at home. By ignoring it, he encourages the extreme right fringe to push its agenda of ultra-nationalism.
The biggest minority, the Muslims, are jittery. Delhi-based veteran journalist Javed Ansari says: “I have never seen the Muslims feel so insecure since the Babri Masjid demolition.”
The speeches Modi delivers on his return home from trips abroad shows this clearly.
He plays big on the nationalist theme. He claims that unlike in the past, no one takes India lightly anymore – thanks, of course, to his dynamic leadership, that is.
His 50-minute speech delivered in Hindi at Davos, a heavily laboured reminder to the world that India had finally ‘arrived’, was also intended to impress his home audience more. Most international media reports were negative. They criticized it as being too long. The applause that followed was only ’polite’.
Apart from highlighting the dramatic benefits that have apparently lifted the Indian economy to a new higher level post demonetisation and the GST, Modi mostly talked about India’s rich ancient ethical traditions – at a conference of heads of states, financial gurus and CEOs.
Contrary to what Modi loyalists claim on the Indian electronic media, US-based analyst Fareed Zakaria struck a realistic note. Asked about the broad reaction of the Davos audience to Modi’s exhortations to invest in India, Zakaria said that initially, US investors were keenly interested.
However, after discussing several projects, the time-consuming procedures and tedious follow-up work in India cooled their initial ardours. The bureaucracy moved too slowly, the infrastructure in terms of good roads, power supply and others were not up to the mark.
The states did not always listen to the centre because of political differences, there were differences between the central and state legislation on land reforms, labour and environment issues. Law and order was also an irritant in some areas.
Zakaria told an Indian interviewer that Western observers still felt that India needed to do much more to step up the speed and extend the limits of its proposed economic reforms before its economy could be really considered competitive internationally.
His reply implied that this had not yet happened, no matter how enthusiastic Modi or Indian policymakers may sound in public. Davos remained unimpressed by India’s rhetoric.
At home, Modi loyalists had a field day. They emphasized that at present, FDI in India stood at $85.79 billion. Clearly, this was evidence that the Indian economy was picking up again. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had rated India positively in their recent surveys.
Authorities of both the WB and the IMF had indicated that annual GDP growth in India would exceed 7%, placing it among the fastest growing economies.
The Modi loyalists carefully avoided reporting that China, the country India saw as its main competitor, had attracted FDI amounting to $133 billion in 2016.
Journalist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, for instance, does not regard India as a global leader. In his words: "It is a poor, under-developed country … with barely a thought about developing a new vision for the world."
He refers to India’s protectionist moves in the import of electronic goods and contemplating to do the same for solar energy initiatives, areas in which it cannot compete with China.
China had taken the same protectionist route prior to its eventual economic take-off. India may be trying to go the same way, but here the outcome could be different, warns Aiyar. Land, labour and capital in India come more costly than in other Asian countries.