An SMS is doing the rounds claiming that Barack Obama is hospitalised for extreme schizophrenia because he says that he is the President of the USA, but his doctors insist that it is Narendra Modi. This brings out the mad Modi-adulation that has apparently rocked the USA. Since a large chunk of doctors in the US are of Indian origin (some of whom have been actively involved in organising the Modi wave there), and a large number of Indians abroad believe Modi is the answer to all their troubles, this joke is not as silly as it may initially seem.
Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s external affairs programme is well under way, it is time to look at the scores. Diplomacy is positioned as a transformative feature of this government. Indeed, it was a keynote feature, with heads of state from the region very prominently present at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. But it does not look as rosy as the Modi fans would have us believe.
Multilaterally, India is in a small, dark place, accused by the US of trying to scuttle the WTO with its nationalist stance on the right to food. Then, Modi hit all the right notes in Japan and brought the house down, but things did not go down too well with Xi Jinping in Delhi. The very fact that the Chinese premier’s visit ended with two separate communiques is a diplomatic way of telling the world that they agreed to disagree. And now, while Indians – especially Indians overseas – are beside themselves with joy at Modi’s speech in Madison Square Garden, there are far too many caveats about the visit for it to be regarded as an unqualified success.
Unlike the Indo-US dialogue in Manmohan Singh’s time, which culminated in a civilian nuclear agreement, there will be no major political or government-to-government takeaway this time. Rather, the meetings that Modi had with captains of industry – American, Indian and of Indian origin – could yield a much bigger dividend over time. Barack Obama welcoming Modi with a cheerful ‘Kem chho?’ is just good cosmetology. Similarly, Modi’s speech was good optics and excellent communication, but it was discounted by the fact that he was addressing the already converted. Getting Modi fans to applaud Moditva – and heckle people they believed were not pro-Modi – is scarcely a herculean feat.
This is the section of NRIs and people of Indian origin who still identify with the mother country. They are enthused by a prime minister who promises a transformative revolution that will propel India off the bullock track and onto the fast track. He is not the first prime minister to promise such a feat, but that need not deter them. Having fled the land for fear of bullock carts, they are ready to believe anyone who promises metal roads horizon-to-horizon. However, this constituency, generally first-generation expatriates, are probably outnumbered by people of Indian origin who think of themselves as British, American or Canadian. Besides, large numbers of expats are quite happy that they fled. These sections of the community, who are indifferent to or alienated from the mother country, are unlikely to invest in India for reasons other than profit.
Which brings us to the substantial element in Modi’s US trip, which had occurred hours before he loped up the gangway of the aircraft which was to take him to Frankfurt, en route to the US east coast. The launch of the ‘Make in India’ portal was a curtain-raiser which could turn out to be the backbone of the event. When Modi announced the scheme in his Independence Day address at Red Fort, it was pure spectacle. Since we all know that Modi is an excellent communicator and grandstander, Make in India was quickly forgotten as one of those flashy ideas that vanish like shooting stars. But on the eve of his journey to the US, Modi launched a portal with much fanfare in Delhi, that is almost perfect, which can inform lay people about regulations and issues in every sector of importance in the economy.
But again, a portal is only the first step of contact with government. Information does not equal facilitation, and it remains to be seen if ministries are actually capable of delivering time-bound processing of queries as the portal promises.
Besides, hand-holding does not mean answering questions patiently. Foreign investors and entrepreneurs hire facilitators in India (some call them fixers, and sometimes accurately so) to take them by the hand through the morass of intersecting jurisdictions and regulations that is the Indian marketplace. The government may wish to cut out the facilitator, but it does not seem to be building the infrastructure to do so. In that case, the effort would have to be organic. The government would have to foster a community of investors and entrepreneurs who help each other in negotiating with government.
But that would only work in an atmosphere of sharing and caring. While Prime Minister Modi duly talks of inclusiveness and suggests sharing credit, appropriation is becoming a problem. Here is a specific example: Ask the man on the street who launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, and you will be told that it is Narendra Modi. Actually, ISRO’s recent successes owe to previous governments and much more to scientists than to politicians anyway. A PSLV launch in June which consolidated its position as a provider of cheap, reliable multi-satellite launch vehicles was the logical next step in a long-running programme. Mangalyaan, which has become associated with Modi because he was there to congratulate the scientists, was launched last November. In turn, it is a logical extension of Chandrayaan I, which went to the moon in 2008. This has been the natural progression of space goals everywhere, including the US and the USSR. The first target is Earth orbit, then the moon, and then Mars, followed by asteroids and other planets.
Politicians who genuinely want inclusiveness, who want to kindle entrepreneurship on a large scale, should take care to see that they are not misrepresented by their celebrants, to the extent that they seem to be grabbing credit for everything that happens.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor, The Little Magazine, www.littlemag.com.
Antara Dev Sen