Modi in Davos

There was a brief moment 10 years or so ago when India was the flavour of Davos. There were Indian fashion shows and art exhibitions, Bollywood songs played in cafes and people danced to them in nightclubs.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: January 21, 2018 10:25:30 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi  (Reuters)

Next week Narendra Modi goes to Davos to try and convince some of the richest men in the world that India is open for business. Trying to lure foreign investors to our shores is something he has done his best to do since he became Prime Minister. In one of his first major speeches he urged foreign manufacturers to come ‘Make in India’. What puzzles me is why his government has not made half as much effort to encourage Indians to invest in India. Is the Prime Minister not aware that real jobs will only come when Indian entrepreneurs, big and small, are persuaded to invest in new businesses?

Let me give you an example from Jodhpur where I was last week. Some years ago two enterprising young men bought a crumbling old house in this city’s crumbling, grubby, dilapidated bazaar and converted it into a boutique hotel called Raas. It nestles in the shadow of the magnificent Mehrangarh fort. No sooner did Raas start luring tourists than this decrepit old bazaar acquired a new allure, and today in it have sprouted fashionable shops of glass and steel selling all kinds of goods made in India. Local people saw what was happening and started converting other crumbling old houses into boutique hotels. All this without any help from the government. Also Read: 20 years after Gowda, PM Modi at Davos — with a ‘new India’ story

You do not need me to tell you that Indians are among the most enterprising people in the world. Even those who grow up in the streets of Mumbai survive by being micro businessmen of one kind or other. But, no sooner do they start to succeed than municipal officials arrive in vans and confiscate their meagre goods and lock them up for opening businesses without first getting a licence. They know that getting one if you are poor and illiterate is next to impossible, but they like to exercise their authority at every level. From having thrived under the licence raj Indian officials cling nostalgically to memories of it and try to revive it wherever possible.

They have done very well under Modi because he has shown more faith in Indian officialdom than any other prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru. But he appears not to have noticed that Indian officials hate change and love power. So they can never support his agenda of ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’, because if there is real change, they will be reduced to performing clerical work in gloomy government offices.

When there is real ‘parivartan’ they will no longer be able to strut about in the manner of petty potentates crushing enterprise, hopes and dreams under the heavy tread of their economic jackboot.

Modi often says that tourism should be a vital pillar of the Indian economy. He is right. No country in the world has more to offer foreign travellers of all kinds, but who will come to a country in which harassment by petty officials starts from the moment the foreign traveller applies for an Indian visa? Who will visit our magnificent temples and ancient ruins if there are not enough flights to the remote places where they exist? Who will invest in ski resorts in the Himalayas if no roads lead to them? Goa is among a handful of Indian states that has understood well the importance of tourism for the creation of jobs, but how long will the tourists continue to come if officials police restaurants to ensure that they do not serve beef or liquor?

Nobody knows better than the Prime Minister that he will not be able to win a second term next year unless young Indians see millions more jobs by then. These jobs cannot come as long as officials are allowed to behave as if the bad old days of the licence-inspector raj are back again. The Prime Minister would know all this if he spent more time meeting Indian businessmen. He has shown no reluctance to meet foreign businessmen but a definite reluctance to meet Indian businessmen, so the information he gets about the problems they face is usually filtered through high officials.

There was a brief moment 10 years or so ago when India was the flavour of Davos. There were Indian fashion shows and art exhibitions, Bollywood songs played in cafes and people danced to them in nightclubs. Indian media houses discovered Davos around this time and so almost every newspaper and news channel started sending reporters up to cover the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. But, by then India’s shining moment had passed, so now what usually happens is that famous Indian TV anchors position themselves at strategic, icy corners on Davos high street to pounce upon Indian businessmen and ministers who they could just as easily interview in Delhi or Mumbai.

Will Modi’s arrival in this Alpine village revive the India conversation? We must hope that it will.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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