Promises not kept
Prime Minister Modi’s conspicuous absence at the Davos conference is indicative of his perceived failure at opening up and expanding the Indian economy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be really missed at the World Economic Forum (WEF), being held at Davos this time when the event begins today. He was the first Indian prime minister in two decades to speak at Davos last year and used his hour on the stage to showcase the economic track record of his government and also emphasised the 'inclusiveness' achieved during his term of five years.
Sitting Indian PMs have rarely attended the event, held at a ski resort in the Swiss mountains, fearing its reputation for elitism may not play well politically at home. The last Indian PM to attend the summit before Modi was H.D. Deve Gowda in 1997. Modi opened the forum that has set itself the task of mapping "a shared future in a fractured world."
Modi tried to deliver his best speech at Davos last time. With a smattering of Sanskrit and a line from Tagore, he hard sold his achievements. "You are aware of the changes we have undertaken and the improvement in our sovereign ratings. More valuable than these numbers is the fact that the Indian people have welcomed the government's reforms," Modi had said. He conveniently forgot to tell the world leaders that his two major steps of demonetisation and the goods and services tax have been disruptive and the promised benefits of both are yet to show up.
Modi invited the investors to make their products in India by saying, "We have done away with red tape and rolled out the red carpet". However, at the very same time, domestic players have cut back on investments as a lack of demand has rendered existing excess capacity useless. Indian industry was operating at only 70 per cent capacity.
Then, there was an impending jobs crisis in India when Modi was speaking at Davos last year. Everyone knows how the economy was struggling to capitalise on India's slipping 'demographic dividend'. The prime minister envisaged more Indians as job creators and not job-seekers.
When Modi was trying to make the world believe by saying, "This philosophy of inclusion is the basis of every decision taken by my government, be it the opening of bank accounts for the financial inclusion of crores of people or taking direct benefit transfer via digital technology to the poor and needy", the fact remained that in the absence of secure livelihoods from the farms to the factories, the mere opening of bank accounts for the poor had done little for financial inclusion. Similarly, the rampant extension of India's biometric identity programme, Aadhaar, under Modi's watch hasn't quite delivered what it promised at the outset.
Modi's claim of 'inclusiveness' followed by his government also had certain hidden facts. At Davos, he said, "In 2014 after 30 years, Indian voters provided complete majority to any political party to form a government at the centre. We took the resolution for the development of everyone and not just a specific group. Our motto is Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas." But he never told the WEF that the approach of his government, his colleagues and for that matter his own personal frame of mind do not match the idea of comprehensiveness.
The real fact has been that since he took power in 2014, incidents of Hindu right-wing aggression, both online and offline, have gained momentum. Yet, the prime minister and senior leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have
mostly turned a blind eye towards those indulging in such
violence, sometimes even tacitly backing them.
Nothing has changed for the better from the last Davos conference to this one in Modi's India. Rather, they have gotten worse. Economy is at its lowest. GDP is at its lowest. Manufacturing is at its lowest. Unemployment is at its highest. Terror on the campuses is at its highest. Targeted violence refuses to go down. Growing countrywide opposition to Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) has taken a defiant stand. A silent revolution against NRC, NPP and CAA is taking shape across the country. Speaking at Davos last year, Modi quoted Rabindranath Tagore, the venerated poet who espoused universalism and aspired for an India that was "a heaven of freedom where the world is not divided by narrow domestic walls." It is ironic that after one year, here is a situation in which the Nobel laureate himself would likely be branded an anti-national today, not the least by Modi's own party-men.
So, what is there for Modi to showcase at Davos this time? Had he gone, what would be his take on these issues before nearly 3000 participants from across the world? How could he face over 100 Indian CEOs, several political leaders including the economy expert, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath and film stars such as Deepika Padukone in the Swiss ski resort town? It would not have easy for Modi to answer to the world's economic and political leadership about the current situation in India. So, his Railways and Commerce minister, Piyush Goyal will tell Davos about the 'strategic outlook of India' this time. He will be assisted by the Karnataka Chief Minister, B S Yediyurappa, Shereen Bhan, Byju Ravindran and Rajneesh Kumar.
In Davos, with the luminaries of the world, we will find a number of people from India and of Indian origin speaking their minds openly. They include Deepika Padukone, Geeta Gopinath, Rajiv Shah, Shamina Singh, Sarita Nayyar, Satya Nadella, Jaishree K. Aiyer, Subra Suresh, Sunder Pichai, Vikram Sharma, Kailash Nath Wayghray, Dipali Goenka, Rohit Chopra, Sunil Bharti Mittal, Ajay Veer Jakhar, Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia, Ashish Goyal, Neeta Shala, Pranjal Sharma, Llina Singh and Shruti Vijaykumar.
American President Donald Trump, climate activist Greta Thungberg, Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Markel, Executive Director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima and President of European Central Bank would be the most heard speakers this year. Those who are registered from India include industry leaders such as Gautam Adani, Mukesh Ambani, Rahul and Sanjiv Bajaj, Kumar Mangalam Birla, N Chandrasekaran of Tata Group, Sajjan Jindal, Uday Kotak, Rajnish Kumar of SBI, Anand Mahindra, Sunil Mittal, Ravi Ruia, Pawan Munjal, Nandan Nilekani and Salil Parekh of Infosys, Ajay Piramal, Rishad Premji, Ajay Singh, Pirojsha Godrej and Tulsi Tanti. Among global business leaders, Michael Dell of Dell, James Dimon of JP Morgan, Deloitte's Punit Renjen, IBM's Ginni Rometty, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, Nokia's Rajiv Suri and UBS's Axel Weber are participating.
The economy is the start and end of everything. You can't have any other reform if you don't have a strong economy. Forums such as WEF can play a substantive role in reviving India's economy but Davos-2020 does not seem to do that as a ruined Indian economy is a cause of grave concern to the international business community. There is a feeling of apprehension and deep trust deficit for investing in India. If the attendees at Davos-2020 recall Narendra Modi's speech at Davos-2019, they shall feel disgusted and cheated. The future generation is not going to judge India just on the basis of the results in one or two election. There are greater things by which the country is judged. The future generation wants a strong economy.
Pankaj Sharma is Editor & CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. Views expressed are strictly personal