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Narendra Modi must do for India what Deng Xiaoping did for China

The friendship between India's prime minister and his Japanese counterpart is well-known. But, writes Afshin Molavi, if Modi wants to truly transform his country, he should seek inspiration from a Chinese leader
Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

It was a bravura performance worthy of a Bollywood epic: the son of a tea-seller rose to the highest office in the land, and delivered a rousing, nationalist, uplifting speech in front of tens of thousands of cheering compatriots from the ramparts of an old Mughal palace as millions watched on televisions across the country.

The “hero” wore a pale white, short sleeve kurta, white pajama trousers, and a striking saffron, green, and white pagdi. The day before, in a dramatic flourish, he demanded the bulletproof glass be removed from his podium. Beloved heroes, after all, have no need to fear bullets.

Of course, that was no Bollywood epic; it was Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day speech, delivered on August 15, and it received rave reviews on both style and content.

With the famed Red Fort in the background, he declared himself “not the prime minister, but the prime servant” of India and his speech was laced with exhortations for his “beloved countrymen” to rise to new heights, to deliver a new dawn in India, complete with theatrical laments about the many ills facing society.

Social media loved it, but so did, by and large, India’s influential newspapers. The Times of India was struck by Modi’s choice of speaking without a teleprompter. Its headline read: “Narendra Modi speaks extempore and strikes a chord.”

The paper quoted academic Pushpesh Pant as saying: “To a generation that has watched a tired Vajpayee [Indian prime minister, 1998-2004] taking excruciatingly long pauses and a Manmohan Singh whose hand could not even rise above his shoulders while saying Jai Hind, Modi’s speech looks magical.”

If it were a Bollywood epic, the film may have closed as Modi delivered the last lines of his speech: “Speak loudly with me with full force. Hail Mother India, hail India, hail Motherland!” Cue the cheering, dancing crowds, and end with a close-up of the grey-bearded leader who overcame the odds to reach this pinnacle. Fade to blue skies, fluttering birds, and a sun-soaked future.

Indian politics and Indian life, of course, are not Bollywood. Indeed, the appeal of Bollywood is the escape, the happy ending that is so rarely felt among the vast majority of Indians. Nearly one in three Indians live in poverty and, anyone who has witnessed Indian poverty will see it for what it is: crushing, dehumanising, a moral blight on humanity.

Some 600 million people defecate in the open, creating enormous health problems and contributing to the stunted growth of millions of Indian children. Some 400 million Indians lack regular access to electricity.

Yes, an Indian middle class is growing on the back of two decades of economic growth, but far too many members of that middle class choose to leave India, rather than stay, seeking opportunities abroad.

Clearly, Narendra Modi is a gifted orator. He also has a powerful mandate, and extraordinary popularity. In an India Today poll, 61 per cent of Indians surveyed said Modi has done a good (51 per cent) or excellent (10 per cent) job thus far. Only 6 per cent rated him poorly. While Modi-mania may have settled down somewhat from the euphoria following his election in May, the prime minister remains clearly a popular leader.

He will need all of that popularity to take on India’s immense challenges. He alluded to many of them in his speech: poverty, corruption, poor governance, increasing incidences of rape, widespread open defecation and a shortage of toilets, exclusion of the poor from banking, yawning digital divides, and weak infrastructure.

Mr Modi should be lauded for speaking openly about India’s social ills, and he should rightly pursue aggressively efforts to combat them. But his tenure as prime minister will be defined overwhelmingly by one thing: the economy.

He was elected to bring the Gujarat “miracle” to the rest of India, to attract foreign investment, grow the economy, build infrastructure, cut red tape, and create jobs.

Mr Modi came home this week from a well-received visit to Japan bearing gifts: pledges of some $35 billion (Dh128bn) in infrastructure and investments and with corporate Japan enamoured with India. In a recent survey conducted by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, executives ranked India as the number one most promising foreign investment destination.

Mr Modi also cemented his much-discussed friendship with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, a bond that began when Mr Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister drumming up investments from Japan, Inc. Indeed, some have even called Mr Modi “India’s Shinzo Abe”. Both men hail from right-of-centre politics, unapologetically embrace nationalism, and are seen as pro-business.

The Modi-Abe mutual admiration society was on full display during the Japan visit. The two men held long talks, walked in gardens, and participated in a rare tea ceremony.

The reality is, however, that Mr Modi should seek to be India’s Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese premier who unleashed three decades of growth from in 1979 through free market openings and infrastructure investments. The two countries share roughly the same population, but today, China accounts for some 15 per cent of global GDP; India accounts for 2 per cent.

India is well on it way to overtaking China in terms of population. Over the next 15 years, its population will grow by 200 million. By then (but more likely sooner), it will have surpassed China.

India’s infrastructure, however, is far behind China’s. Deng Xiaoping once famously said: “If you want to create wealth, build a road.” China has seemingly never looked back, building roads, ports, airports, power stations, high speed trains and metro systems, at breakneck speed over the past 35 years.

Mr Modi understands the need for infrastructure investments, particularly as urban India gradually overtakes rural India in terms of population. IHS, the global information service, estimates that Mr Modi is seeking some $1 trillion (Dh3.7tn) in urban infrastructure investments as part of his “smart city” initiative – an ambitious number, but better to aim high than low.

The government is building three kilometres of road per day, but Modi wants to hit 30km per day by 2016. Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari has often been quoted in the Indian media as saying: “American roads are not good because America is rich. America is rich because American roads are good.”

Around the world, countries and cities that are infrastructure-rich also tend to have the highest standards of living and create an enabling environment for entrepreneurs as well as large corporates. Simply consider the United Arab Emirates, which punches above its weight economically, owing, in no small part, to strategic investments in infrastructure.

In Mr Modi’s Independence Day speech and in his corporate barnstorming in Japan, he made a clarion call for investments in the manufacturing sector in India. Yes, India has the labour force, but it does not have the infrastructure to support a manufacturing renaissance. Goods need to get to market, and industries can hardly tolerate regular power outages.

One of Mr Modi’s famous lines has been that foreign investors should “get the red carpet, not red tape”. Even if he manages to roll back India’s notorious red tape and tame corruption and enact a more foreign-investment friendly environment, India will still need more roads, more access to power, more ports, more everything.

Today, Mr Modi likes to say: “Come, make in India.” But India will only begin to attract transformational manufacturing investments when it transforms its infrastructure.

India has a long way to go. It will require sustained, dedicated, and a highly focused vision. Mr Modi may indeed be a great orator, but he will be judged by history on whether he is also a great builder.

Afshin Molavi is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation

Updated: September 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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