Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Davos comes 20 years after a “humble farmer” and consensus prime minister, sitting atop a shaky coalition and an also-ran economy, merely participated, in 1997, at the World Economic Forum (WEF). Modi will not only go to the Swiss mountain-top for two out of the five-day event but will deliver the keynote address at the plenary session on 2-3 January 2018.
India will also host the welcome reception at the outset of the summit, replete with Indian cuisine, music, jugglers, acrobats, fire-eaters and yoga demonstrations. Marking its confident presence at Davos will be a contingent of 100 major company CEOs, six Union ministers and two chief ministers from India.
The prime minister’s star-turn at snowy Davos will follow one by President Xi Jinping of China who did similar honours last year. Perhaps the time has truly come to not only hyphenate these two great powers but contrast their meanings to the world. Xi, in his rather ritualistic and formal way, staked a claim to global leadership and indeed climate control too. This, in the backdrop of a Trumpian “America First” policy and refusal to endorse the Paris Climate Summit. This was perceived, a little too hopefully by some, as a retreat from America’s “globocop” avatar, not to mention its Numero Uno positioning.
India comes to Davos 2018 with a burgeoning security cum economic relationship with the US, Japan, Israel, Russia, Australia, Iran, Afghanistan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and several ASEAN countries — disturbed by the goings on in the Malacca Straits, the South China Sea, and even the Indian Ocean.
Sympathetic noises have also come in recognition of India’s position from many African countries and the other bits of BRICS of late. A unipolar Chinese domination in place of the US is not palatable to any country other than perhaps a helpless Pakistan and North Korea, with even these two satellites chafing at the bit sometimes. Much of this is not only due to China’s territorial insatiability and military menace, but also rapacious commercial terms for its infrastructure building abroad. Countries that have fallen prey to Chinese blandishments such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Venezuela, are all realising, too late, that they are all on the brink of bankruptcy, and that China is the new owner of all that they possess.
India, by way of contrast, is working benignly with Iran, Afghanistan, several of the central Asian and African republics, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh etc alongside Japan sometimes, and is clearly not seen to be predatory. India’s economy, though four-times smaller than China’s, is not nearly as burdened with debt. Though China trundles on, with a debt overhang of 260% of its GDP, the question is, for how long, before the avalanche strikes?
India in fiscal 2017, despite muted growth, by its own standards, at under 7%, is nevertheless slated to grow again, at a significantly faster rate than China, by 2019. In 2018 itself, it will take the fifth position in the economies of the world, ahead of Britain and France. In more ways than one, therefore, India is signalling that even though it is hampered by its red-tape-loving bureaucracy and socialist hangover, its demographic fault lines, inefficiencies, dirt and pervasive petty corruption, it is also taking definite strides to develop into a modern state.
Modi is both a symbol and fact of this exciting new trend, exuding the determination to see it through. The 3,000 global leaders expected this time in Davos will witness and feel the considerable dynamism, confidence and charisma of the world’s most famous “tea seller” made good, (as Ivanka Trump recently put it in Hyderabad). Modi heads The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), that enjoys an absolute majority in the wholly-elected lower house of parliament in the world’s most populous democracy. And this for the first time in 30 years.
He is clearly an Indian prime minister that has made an unprecedented global impact, in under four years, with many bold foreign and domestic policy initiatives. A man of destiny, Modi has come to power at a time when India and China not only account for a large proportion of the world’s population but also much of its economic growth prospects. The situation is all the more remarkable because India is progressing while running a vibrant, some would say, over raucous, constitutional, universal- suffrage based democracy. Despite many accusations of dictatorial tendencies, Modi has only flaunted his uncommon ability to take virulent, unjustified personal abuse, without any hint of retaliation.
That the NDA runs 19 of the 29 States in the Indian Union presently, up from just 4 when the NDA had come to power in 2014, with a prospect of adding to its tally before the end of its first term in 2019, is clearly impressive. But that it is also most likely to win a second five-year term of office at the Centre, in 2019, is the compelling context to the largest Indian delegation ever to visit the WEF at Davos.
That the WEF as an organisation has been bending over backward to woo Narendra Modi by giving him equal billing to Xi Jinping last year, is a recognition of the present reality. This is a departure, truth be told, from the 1971 established NGOs attitude towards him, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
So now, quite apart from the themes enumerated for the plenary and other sessions to be addressed by Prime Minister Modi, and indeed, other members of the Indian delegation, the influential gathering will be keen to interact with the leading lights of this nearly pivotal democratic polity. The prime minister, on his part, will return from this summit to host the entire leadership of ASEAN at India’s Republic Day celebrations at New Delhi on 26 January. This too underlines India’s greater outreach, relevance, and the emerging success of India’s ‘Look East’ or ‘Act East’ policy.