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21st Century Could Belong To India

A united world is in the best interest of India, a world where boundaries are as less as possible for in such a world, breeds diversity, creativity and innovation. India can lead that effort in the 21st century, through its diplomacy.

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Leadership of the 21st century has been very different from before. With almost the entire world turning democratic, modern leadership and governance have paid a pivotal role in shaping global and regional economies and taking them to the heights visible. To take a look at what changed, we have to reflect on the start of the 21st century’s biggest debacle, 9/11, which lead to a massive deployment of armed forced from USA led West coalition, to obliterate dangerous terror groups around the world – Al Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban to name a few. Alongside, countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya & Egypt were freed of oppressors and elements, that were suppressing its citizens. There were civil wars and external interventions which have paved way for a bright future for their future generations. There were blatant and gross human rights issues that needed addressing, and people can safely sleep now, knowing well, that no one can take their lives and livelihoods away, and people will live with dignity, freedom and justice. We are nearing the end of tolerance for violence and oppression and voices of people today are stronger than ever before. It has been either surrender or perish for wrongdoers, and we have reached quite a high point of standards for peace and prosperity. Ever since World Wars I & II, there has been an underlying theme of military might. An important question arises, if trillions of dollars that are spent on military and defense, were to be spent on economic and infrastructure development as well as business development, wouldn’t we be able to say that we have reached a zenith of human values? 

Barack Obama took office in wintery 2009 January. People had declared him a winner half way through the election campaign, and that is due to the energy, optimism and dedication that his charismatic personality exuded when he spoke and the points he brought to the table. There was the sound of truth in his voice. Just before that, George Bush’s era, highlighted by the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, ended with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Subprime crisis exploded and stock markets, world business and almost everything to do with commerce and trade took a hit. Barack, leading the most powerful nation in the world realized that and as he took office, he had a plan. In business terms, he didn’t want USA to have an image of the most powerful nation in the world, he wanted strong financials, stronger backbone and a steady growth accompanied by goodwill, something that will stand sturdily by America always. He covered USA with plenty of insurance. He made his country rock solid by striking a friendlier chord with foreign nations and getting them on the table, in his informal but highly effective leadership style. US power got a lot of soft power during this time, and there was something in there for everyone. He visited more nations than anyone else and opened doors for trade, business, highlighted issues that scenario planning could teach us, such the drastic climate change crisis and acted on it. He was ahead of his times and together with David Cameron and other NATO alliance countries, they wiped the tears of millions stuck under oppression. 

Vladmir Putin, in 2014, invaded Crimea and ended centuries old feud over the land which was disputed. Some may call it despotic but people of Crimea were suffering due to the ongoing conflicts which were centuries old. Today, they would be on faster road to prosperity, something I would imagine happening to Kashmir if India did that. Russian economy with the help of Putin’s hands on approach, is in top 15 in terms of GDP and ever growing. The natural resources rich giant has made every effort to address their internal issues and are on road to getting a reputation of meaning business. Russia could use amalgamation with the rest of the world to a higher degree. 

Trump was someone who was hands on as well. He clearly didn’t play by the rule book, taking on media fiercely, a fraternity that works for the people just like him too. Maybe he had a point at times, but his ways showed little care for a second term. He did well for US economy and employment, but lost the second election. One instance which stood out during Trump’s term, was the handling of North Korean nuclear crisis. It was a job well done! We are still to see what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris do.

Oil and gas have been a key point of interest and part of strategy for nations for a long time. That has begun to change with emphasis on green energy and the new green revolution that has started and nations today strive towards net zero emissions. Almost all nation signatories of Paris Climate Agreement, and sustainable companies, have pledged to protect our planet’s future. This is possible through collectivism. The agreement’s “goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. Nations have pledge to help each other financially and through technology transfer, to lower their carbon footprint. There is funding available, subsidies given and there is an added emphasis on this topic in almost all forums and platforms. Isn’t that great? With oil prices being volatile due to its future’s uncertainty, we are left with a world that works on basic fundamentals of demand and supply. Natural resources are limited in any case, and their conservation is in the best interest of the world. After all, they take millions of years to form.

While Cold War seems to have ended, and the rhetoric in Hollywood movies is much of what’s left of it, economic progress has taken the driver’s seat as an agenda with almost all leaders. World peace is at sight. We have a few issues like Jammu & Kashmir in India, which is a lingering territorial dispute and Israel-Palestine, which need to be resolved, but they are on global watchlist and one can hope that soon they will be peacefully and justly concluded. Terror still exists and must be tackled but tolerance for it has gone down way too low. This is good news.

Globalization era of the new millennium has made countries both autonomous and symbiotic at the same time. Looking at GDP figures can give you a skewed idea of development as some countries have very high population. We also have to look at GDP per capita. GDP of USA was around $14.7 in 2008 when it lowered due to the financial crisis in 2009, before rising gradually year on year and reaching US$ 21.4 trillion in 2019. Covid-19 brought it down to around US$ 20.2 trillion mark this year. Year on year growth of USA has been healthy ever since 2009. As per World Economic Forum data of 2019, USA’s GDP accounts for 23.89% of global GDP. China was next at US$ 13.6 trillion mark, accounting for approximately 15.86% of global GDP. Top 15 economies accounted for 75% of global GDP, and amounted to US$ 85.8 trillion, according to the World Bank. 

At the advent of the millennium, China invested heavily in its infrastructure and became pro-business and fast paced in its delivery. It became the most favourite offshoring destination. Japan & Germany, known for research in technology and automation have been growing at a steady pace and are still top 5 economies in the world. This just goes on to prove that investment in research & development(R&D), innovation and disruption are key to progress. One must also compliment UK and France, being a fraction of size of India and China, in terms of landmass and population, have also held their post, very high up. 

India is growing at a fast pace, its GDP growth rate, being the focal point of media reports. Government realizes the importance of economic progress. Dr. Manmohan Singh, previously known as a wizardly Finance Minister, took office in 2004 and left in 2014. Our GDP grew from US$ 2.87 trillion to US$ 6.78 trillion under his leadership. Our GDP growth rate was the highest in the world. Our GDP per capita under him doubled from approximately US$ 2,600 to almost US$ 5,200. This is with purchasing power parity(PPP) included. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi took oath in 2014. While we expected a hands on approach from him, to bring businesses and investments into India, he did that in a more packaged way by branding India globally and giving it its right place in the world. His strategy was similar to President Obama, to the point conversations, causal yet subtly elegant approach to his relationships with other leaders and opening India to the world in a win-win way. I felt that before him, no leader from India dealt with a win-win approach and tried to gain an extra mile, in the process, harming India’s prowess. 

Narendra Modi went the extra mile to reciprocate gestures, defend India against its enemies and paved the way for large shoes to be filled after him, which will be a while away if he continues in this direction. He has taken upon infrastructure development and policy making in an instinctive yet profitable way in the long term. He is displacing India to the future, taking the accelerated route which we need. China did exactly that at the advent of the century and they are where they are due to that. Doesn’t it make sense to invest in the best technology so it doesn’t get outdated?  The high speed rails, water transportation, trains for farm produce, tunnels, coastal roads and more things that save time daily for working Indians, is important to focus on. Time is key, and if we can save time, be it through better air or land or water, we should. These things were ignored earlier. 

Global attention has turned to India, which enjoys similar socio-economic demographics to erstwhile China. We can encash on this position from here onwards by doing basic things. While, Africa burns under corruption, India saw a lot of cleansing in the last decade, on that front. Today’s reputation of India overseas, is only possible due to the era Dr.Singh and Mr.Modi, Prime Ministers who gave law enforcement a free hand. We must not discount the role of growing media power and connections people enjoy with all their leaders through social media, be it any country. There is greater awareness and transparency and this is true for all nations. One can only feel bad for citizens of China, a country that is disconnected socially from the rest of the world and growing as if on a mission to lead global economy by numbers. There is no such concept. People globally have met very few Chinese travellers. Such an isolated growth story has no happiness quotient and is unhealthy.

We have to understand that as an economy grows, the growth rate tends to slow down. Covid-19 has slowed down global economy to even a larger degree and growth rate is negative in all countries. GDP has fallen for every country. There is high unemployment and dearth of funds in poor countries. Samaritans worry about vaccinating Africans, and people have gone behind by years. In this situation, a hands on approach and a will to do nothing but work, with sleeves folded up, is required. First and foremost, in India, we have to sit and envisage a post Covid world. Interest rates need to be lowered a bit to accommodate defaulting businesses. This time has to be utilized by our government to do exactly what they are doing and more of it, upgrading our infrastructure and reinventing the wheel of modus operandi. 

Indian ecosystem for economic prosperity has improved tremendously. While the farmer’s protests are understandable, the new policy will help tackle inflation and remove bureaucratic influence on farmers. State regulatory control over farmers will become less. State, they fear, may not procure their goods at a good price now. That is a grey area, but Modi government remains to prove their point. Time will tell whether it’s a good move or a bad one.

Running a country is not just about economics. For example, can you imagine Europeans doing business with a country that has trash and litter all over its main cities, including beaches, financial hubs and a weak downtown, if any. India needs an effective trash collection system and bins placed everywhere like any other country. I wouldn’t travel to see Taj Mahal if I have to smell cow dung on the roads. We just have to get the basics right from here. All those wires hanging from roof to roof in our cities, towns and villages are an eyesore and most of them are old cable TV connections that don’t work anymore as satellite cable has arrived long ago. Do what can be done to make things better. Stray dogs, open potholes, homeless sleeping under bridges are not a sight that will draw investments. There are plenty of countries to work with, and if India can’t up its ante, India can forget being the next China or Japan or Germany. However, if we see how far we’ve come and plan to move ahead a notch in a slow and sustainable way, we can certainly grow to greater heights. There is nothing stopping us. There is actually nothing stopping anybody that works and does things in the right way and gets the basics correct, be it a person, a company or a nation.

Constructive politics can play a big role in shaping India from here onwards. People fall prey to politicking very easily and endless debates on primetime television are not where you would catch a glimpse of progressive talk. There are hardly any fresh points. We have to revive the soul of the nation. Taking a leaf out of British politics, where orderly conduct, and high accountability are accompanied with parties of differing views coming together and adding value, not playing vote bank politics. We need that now! Our two major parties are in various states, and they along with regional alliances or independent parties, should work together for their constituencies tirelessly. What made Narendra Modi stand out was that he proved himself by bringing prosperity to his state Gujarat, which he lead to being one of the highest grossing states in the country. It’s time to extend hands of co-operation, from party to party, state to state, country to country, as we see what unfolds in the aftermath of this pandemic, that has left a trail behind. 

What Indian governments of the past and present have not done is to review old laws and numbers. If people shop abroad and come here, they are liable for heavy custom duties. All to foster Indian companies. However, till there is some competition, neither will there be an incentive to technological growth, nor will price inflation be checked. The interiors of India is a huge market and unless Indian local companies flood them with their goods. Checking small things like foreign non-merchandise imports, is futile, and psychologically such low permissible figures are disturbing for the urban population, who have been waiting for India to come out with their BMW or Apple or Hugo Boss. Duties are high and permissible limits too low sometimes, and makes no sense with our currency strength. 

Financial technology has to increase with easy payments possible digitally. Digital India initiative is a great one, but it has to take roots in the interiors. We have made tremendous progress, but we need to be relentless. Private sector in India has ample opportunities and we had many tech unicorns this year, which is a good sign. Tech is the future. Today’s world demands speed and convenience and our service industries like banking, telecom, hotels etc are among the best in the world. However, we must not rest here as evolution of technology is faster than anything else in the world. Manufacturing sector in India, in technology is very weak. We have to foster inhouse growth in products and services even more. We are currently importers, and if not, we consume inferior goods. That has to change. We have to build our brands and take those brands global. That is how America gained dominance in the 20th century, and Europe before that.

Metros in India are getting saturated, and for that migration to be needless, prosperity and opportunities have to trickle down to smaller cities and towns. We are doing very well in textiles, pharmaceuticals, information technology(IT), steel and so many other things but our ecosystem don’t allow us to go global, and for that to change, we have to make India a presentable country, every inch of it. We have to be energy self-sufficient and a stronger voice in geopolitics, yes, even stronger!

One thing Barack Obama, Donald Trump & David Cameron did right, was look at employment figures closely and added to it, one by one. They did that for FDI and FII as well. That is how tough or easy it is, so without complex economics, just the basics can get us there. Sly policies don’t work, tough and straightforward ones do. Win-win deals are successful, even between nations! A united world is in the best interest of India, a world where boundaries are as less as possible for in such a world, breeds diversity, creativity and innovation. India can lead that effort in the 21st century, through its diplomacy.

We have to respect that we are a diverse country. We are like entire Europe in terms of diversity, even more. However, we have to foster English language education as that is globally the language people transact in. We are one generation away, unless quicker, to being a global superpower. For long, Indians copied western culture, today they are in awe of our family values, movies, music and culture. It is about portraying it in the right way and this government is doing that. 

We have to rise about religious divisiveness and grow into becoming a bunch of pragmatic, reasonable and growth oriented lot. A lot of time has been wasted on useless issues, please, no more! If we rise above dogma and superstition, our favourable climate, our large coastline and availability of labour can get us the victory badge in almost all sectors.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Vaibhav Maloo

The author is Managing Director of Enso Group. He resides in Mumbai. He holds an undergraduate degree in business from Carnegie Mellon University and a postgraduate diploma in global business from Oxford University.

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