Last year, it was Chinese president Xi Jinping. And, now, prime minister Narendra Modi has made a big impression at the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Davos, often described as an influential talking shop where world leaders exchange ideas over fondue. Both Asian leaders made attempts to sell the growth stories in China and India to the world’s elite, policy makers, presidents and prime ministers of different countries. The only difference is that while there is none to question Xi Jinping back home, Modi heads a nation known for its noisy democracy and argumentative Indian population where every decision is subjected to scrutiny. For Xi and Modi, the challenges on the economic front as well as handling of global relations seem different and diverse. The Chinese leader had spoken from a position of strength. He heads, arguably, an economy that posted high growth in the last two decades to challenge the best.
For his part, Modi got a full mandate in May 2014 and leads an economy that has been on a modest growth curve at 6.5 per cent. But, the optimistic part is an IMF projection that India will regain its position of being the fastest growing economy at 7.4 per cent in 2018 and 7.8 per cent next year. The convergence in Xi and Modi’s articulation was the threat to globalisation looming large especially from the developed world led by US president Donald Trump.
However, there was a role reversal this time around as global leaders heard the virtues of “open, interconnected and shared economic prosperity” from both the Chinese president and Indian prime minister. This seems to be hopelessly pitched against Trump’s “make in US” ultra-nationalist aggressive pitch that appeals to blue collared core Republican dominant white voters. Even though Modi also rode the “ultra nationalist wave” to power, the prime minister’s discourse is vastly appealing to foreign investors that propose to cash in on the ever-growing middle class dominated Indian and South Asian markets.
Selling vasudaiva kutumbakam as an Indian concept to the world in neo-liberal terms of a global family was much easier for Modi as a WEF keynote speaker, a rare honour for an Indian prime minister in 30 years after HD Deve Gowda addressed the Davos elite. Here again, Xi Jinping’s job was an unhappy one given the massive confrontation that the Communist oligarchs-led administration has with over 36 countries around the world on an array of issues.
None would dispute Modi’s central theme at WEF that points to three major issues confronting the world: terrorism, climate change and threat to globalisation. The 40 CEOs who gathered to hear Modi sing the globalisation song would also go home trigger happy that their conglomerates would have a second home in India given the restrictive measures unleashed by Trump. They are bound to differentiate between Modi’s “Make in India” campaign and Trump’s “Make in US” initiative. While Trump’s economic restrictions were glaring and rude to the core, Modi’s openness to the world was emphatic. The prime minister deftly invoked both Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore to drive home the Indian global view of peaceful co-existence with environment as well as the entire human race. An excellent communicator, he sold India as a global brand that believes in soft power. Justifiably, this gets juxtaposed against China’s standing of being a hard power with expansionist objectives that were displayed on several occasions.
In fact, Modi seems to have created space for himself and India on the global stage as a big player in the medium term. He not only demolished the myth that India was a chained tiger but an elephant that’s wise, measured and mature in its approach to issues ranging from the economy to cultural interface. The biggest challenge will, however, be to encash on the enormous goodwill India enjoys internationally.