from Asia Unbound

Narendra Modi at Davos

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks at the opening plenary during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2018. Denis Balibouse/Reuters

January 23, 2018

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks at the opening plenary during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2018. Denis Balibouse/Reuters
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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first to visit the World Economic Forum in more than twenty years, used his opening plenary address to position his country as a champion of global unity and against “fractures,” a country focused on its future, and differentiated by its democracy. If last year’s Davos speech by President Xi Jinping reverberated worldwide as China’s bid for global leadership, the Modi address appears modeled on that message and more. It is as if Modi seeks to highlight India’s democratic edge over China as a global selling point.

Here are my three quick takeaways, and two cautions, from the speech.

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1. India will continue to seek what it sees as its rightful cultural place on the world stage. Modi delivered today’s speech in Hindi, employing simultaneous translation for the assembled business gathering. He speaks English, and has delivered speeches in it from time to time, but has preferred to deliver major international addresses in Hindi. As I write in my new book about this preference, “It is a bid for recognition of Hindi as a language—an Indian language—just as deserving of visibility as one of the world’s major languages alongside English, French, Russian, Chinese, or any other.” (Yes, it is certainly true that India has many languages, and there are many in India who resent the idea that Hindi should stand in for the entirety of the country’s diversity.)

2. Modi continued in his role as salesman-in-chief for India. While the framing of this speech was more holistic—not limited simply to economic matters—he did not forget his pitch for India, saying “India is an investment in the future” and presenting the country as the place that “offers you everything that you seek from and for your life.” The recitation of the India opportunity would be expected from the leader of a country that, while growing fast, still needs to grow much faster to create jobs and opportunities for its young workforce, and to deliver the rising prosperity its enormous population seeks. He also invoked the theme of “the world is a family,” a Sanskrit saying that the Modi government has used as a touchstone for foreign policy.

3. Modi presented India’s democratic diversity as an advantage in an unstable world of flux. The strength of India’s diverse democracy runs as a theme throughout the speech, and Modi explicitly contrasted India’s democracy as a force for stability in “an otherwise state of uncertainty and flux.” This is a smart way to differentiate the great Indian democratic experiment with the increasingly controlling, panopticonic world of China—and indeed, to present the constant of India’s democratic traditions, however messy, as its global selling point. By emphasizing this argument, Modi’s remarks today marked a shift to a broader theme from the more narrowly focused investment pitches of the Make in India campaign.

Two cautions naturally flow from the above.

First, as is well known, India remains a challenging place to do business for international companies and investors. (And Indian companies face many of the challenges that international companies do.) Modi’s speech acknowledged the ongoing reforms and need for more, and that need will remain the case for some time.

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Second, while democracy’s centrality to India’s story indeed distinguishes the country from so many others, it is also true that India’s great diversity is not always harmonious. Recent headlines have focused on the shocking cases of cow-protection vigilante violence—anti-Muslim in sentiment. I would also note that violence against women has not ended—just pick up any newspaper in India for daily reports—and that frictions and in some cases violence due to ongoing caste discrimination continue. India has a great story to tell about its against-the-odds universal franchise. But the country has not solved its many domestic tensions. Modi could provide a boost for India’s domestic harmony if he were to use his platform more often at home, just as he did today on the international stage, to reaffirm the importance of India’s strength: unity in diversity. As he said in his Davos remarks, “An India where enormous diversity exists harmoniously will always be a unifying and harmonizing force.” India’s soft power as the world’s largest democracy—in sharp contrast to developments in China—can only be enhanced by strengthening democratic diversity at home.

Read the full text in English and in Hindi. Watch the video.

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World, was just published by Oxford University Press. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook (fb.me/ayresalyssa) or Instagram (instagr.am/ayresalyssa).

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