(photo credit: article.wn.com)
Charismatic leaders can mould crowds like putty. Bill Clinton’s March, 2000 “US and India are natural allies” address to the Indian Parliament; Barrack Obama’s University of Cairo “New Beginnings” address to the Muslim world, June, 2009 unleashed a Tsunami of optimism and “feel good”. In much the same way, PM Modi-the man with an agenda of Big things for Small people- in his recent Madison Square address, won over the hearts and minds of a “massive” (by US standards) crowd of 18,000 Indian-Americans in New York and an even larger audience back home in India.
For many Indian expatriates, including us in India, it is a relief to have a Prime Minister who radiates strength, speaks extempore and from his heart. It also helps that he is a consummate performer, who draws energy from the crowd and returns it to them magnified many-fold.
Those looking for suave wit and a sophisticated exposition of geo-political gyan were sorely disappointed. Modi was deliberately folksy and simplistic. He capitalized on his strengths magnificently, just as Indira Gandhi, the last Indian PM with an international stature, used to do more than three decades ago.
Of course, it helps if one can live on water endlessly and still have the physical ability and mind space to go through a deliberately, whirl-wind program. By doing so Modi has become a live bill-board for the low carbon footprint potential of solar energy. His eschewing food altogether, through the trip, was akin to the Mahatma wandering through the London chill in his sparse loin cloth, protected only by the churning energy generator in his mind.
Till now the West has been wowed by India’s IT skills, thanks to our Silicon Valley diaspora. Next, we are likely to be branded as Yoga maestros all and expected to perform never-before feats of physical endurance.
But it was not all plain sailing.
Three areas where plain speaking-PM Modi’s forte, would have helped, are listed below.
First, what exactly is our stand on joining the fight against Islamic Terror and the linked approach to Afghanistan? The message coming through till now is fuzzy. It seems India is likely to carry on in much the same muddled way we have done till now; remaining visible in Afghanistan, but primarily as well wishers, bringing development to the people of Afghanistan. This is clearly dissatisfactory and unrealistic in the context of the impeding US withdrawal and the likely security turmoil courtesy the unresolved political contestation between the Ashraf Ghani and Abudullah Abdullah groups. National governments are prone to fail. Similar recent experiments in Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Sudan illustrate the illusive nature of such options for “externally enforced” stability in the face of unresolved local contestation.
Our interest lies in clearly establishing that we view the Taliban, the Pakistan Army and Militant Kashmiri jihadi groups as part of the same set of Islamic Terrorists, which are a direct and existential threat to us and our secular, plural democratic system. We must be willing and able to take the most effective action in our near abroad to crush Islamic Terror. But where Islamic Terror is not a direct threat to us (as for example the ISIL) whilst any UN endorsed initiative will have our support, we do not have the resources to join a plurilateral initiative against global terror. This is strictly for the big boys; the US, its NATO allies and China.
PM Modi has been at pains to explain that on this trip that whilst he has been trying for more than the last two decades to get the US to recognize the global consequences of Islamic terror, they took cognizance only after 9/11, when it hurt them directly. The fact is we must be similarly discriminating in unbundling Islamic Terror into immediate and distant threats and not be distracted by the enormity of global threats and ignore focusing on managing immediate threats, closer home.
Plain speaking about our threat perceptions, our limitations and our determination not to be cowed down by terror would have helped.
Second, the message on trade and investment needs to be distilled better. The economic opportunities in India are well known. The demographics; the steady economic growth and resultant demand and our democratic architecture.
Unfortunately most foreign investors live in the present. No international manager has a business perspective beyond a decade-even if they draw up beautiful thirty year perspectives. What big business looks for is leadership level facilitation to get their specific project up and running quickest with commercial and political risk minimized.
Tardy environmental clearances; tax opacity; poor infrastructure and most recently, the extended ambit of judicial review of contracts are big dampeners. Many of these constraints are institutional and require structural change, which is long term. What we need are near tern solutions, of the fire-fighting kind, to establish the enabling business environment. Selective but transparent tweaking of dilatory process is an obvious option but there are challenges even here.
At the leadership level, “successful tweaking of process” requires political credibility that the selective attention is in national interest and not another manifestation of crony capitalism. Consensus building between the executive and the judiciary of the acceptable envelop of “process tweaking”, in national interest, is key for retaining the credibility of the executive and the independence of the judiciary, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the judiciary does not get drawn into settling political scores.
PM Modi is best placed to manage the optics on this score. At the operational level, he will need the support of a highly skilled and empowered team of state government officials working with counterparts from the Union Government, to pilot the tweaking process towards accelerated launch of projects.
What should constitute the government’s decision matrix for determining the “hurdle rate” for projects to be eligible for tweaking the “way we do business”? In such circumstances it always helps to have narrow objectives. “Employment and poverty reduction”, both of which are urgent near term investment related goals, present themselves as excellent “filters” for evaluating and identifying proposals which merit the highest level of facilitation.
50 projects; 5 million jobs; US$15 billion investment can be the rolling target with automatic replenishment by new proposals as projects get launched. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to generate the frisson of excitement which the project based approach generates.
Third, plain speaking on our environmental and energy policy would have helped. It is clearly in India’s interest to clean its water bodies and rivers; reduce air pollution and reverse the denudation of forests and degradation of land. Degradation of these natural assets has immediate economic and social outcomes usually with adverse poverty consequences. It is the poor who are impacted negatively when water bodies and rivers become polluted because they use them directly for personal needs and business. The poor similarly suffer the most from atmospheric pollution because they are incapable of insulating themselves and their children, from such ambient pollution. Unregulated deforestation robs the poor of their eco-system and their livelihoods. Combating land degradation, like increased salinity often caused by unsustainable use of ground water and poorly managed large irrigation schemes, is a costly undertaking, which is often beyond the financial ability of the poor.
On energy our big concern is energy security. The use of coal is likely to remain a staple component of our energy profile. Similarly, more aggressive utilization of the hydro potential in India and in South Asia is an efficient option. Embedding passive energy efficiency building design is another significant option. Urbansiation levels are relatively low but there is a big stimulus in the offing under the PMs target of a house for all by 2022.
More generically, India is committed to technology choices which are congruent with our two, often conflicting, goals of reversing the degradation of natural resources whilst ensuring energy security. An increasing share of wind and solar energy is one such technology choice. Increasing the share of public transportation by railways relative to roads is another which the government is pursuing. But capping India’s carbon footprint at an unrealistic level is similar to capping food subsidy at historical prices which India has already rejected.
The mantra for plain speaking on the Indian strategy for managing terrorism; enlarging trade and safeguarding the environment is to rely on the simple rule of first reserving the fiscal and the physical space for the developing world to “catch up”, before providing breathing room for the developed world, who have abetted and often perpetrated all three global problems, by agreeing to hold them harmless.