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Modi Positions India Between An Insular United States And An Expansionist China At Davos

Republic's Abhishek Kapoor on Prime Minister Modi's speech at the World Economic Forum

It could have been little less moralizing in tone, and more matter of fact. But I shall come to that later. With his formulation of three threats and four solutions in his plenary speech at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi projected India as a land that has ideas to deal with the fractures facing the world. And in doing so, Modi’s speech sought to claim a space commensurate with India’s growing heft in economic and geopolitical terms without sounding intimidating, in an increasingly multi-polar global order.

Given that Davos is an avowedly liberal village, for Modi to put climate change as the first and foremost threat to human civilization showed his astute understanding of global concerns. From his days as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi has grasped the seriousness of global warming and its consequences, even writing a book – Convenient Action – in response to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Putting terror second on the list, Modi touched an issue that increasingly finds resonance across the world. As one of the most affected nations, the lightness with which the Prime Minister spoke on terrorism as a global malaise without associating it with any religion or culture, Modi made sure that he did not come out as parochial targeting Pakistan. By calling protectionism as the third threat leading to fractures, Modi underscored his credentials as a liberal on economy. Perhaps in preparation for Davos, his government had taken some more decisions liberalizing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) including in the flagship state carrier Air India. Interestingly, it came on a day when reports suggested that the United States imposed steep import duties on solar panels and washing machines from China.

The four-point Modi formula to deal with the threats - competition should not lead to disputes; rules-based global order; changing world institutions to reflect new realities; speedier economic integration – was clearly aimed at occupying the space between an increasingly insular United States and an aggressively expansionist China. 

Comparing Modi’s speech with that of Chinese president Xi Jinping at the same venue last year presents a picture of contrasts in how the two oldest civilizations are grappling with the same set of problems. Wherever Xi used globalization in his speech, it was in the economic context only. Peppered with such inanities like “lack of growth drivers is making it difficult to sustain growth” on prognosis and “new policy instruments and structural reforms should help” by way of solution, Xi batted on the front foot in support of globalization. Where the Chinese leader did better than Modi was perhaps in giving numbers to China’s contribution to global growth. From possible US $ 8 trillion imports over next five years to making $ 750 billion in outbound investments, or Chinese tourists making 700 million overseas visits and consequent economic benefits for rest of the world - Xi speech came out as a sledgehammer approach to opening the economy: We have the money. We would do whatever it takes to reach Rome. Join us!

That’s where I come to where I began. In quoting Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Tain Tyaktain Bhunjhitha, and highlighting corporate social responsibility as an objective, Modi perhaps fell for the Nehruvian morality whose roots are strong in India’s foreign policy establishment even now. Events like Davos put world leaders under arch lights, testing them on their vision and ability to influence global narratives in the present. By that yardstick, the Modi Davos speech did achieve quite some for India.

Post-script: PERHAPS anticipating Rahul Gandhi's tweetRahul Gandhi's tweet mocking his speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his Davos address by saying that while social media helped connect, it failed in integrating an increasingly fractured society in the times we live. In keeping with his new-found aggression on Twitter, the Congress chief perhaps forgot a more detailed income inequality paper on India by economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty last July, which came to the same conclusions having studied the period between 1922 and 2014, exactly the year Modi came to power!


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