Mumbai has just witnessed an extremely lavish and exorbitantly expensive show of its industrial prowess entitled Make in India. Crores of taxpayers’ money were splurged on constructing a set worthy of Cecil B DeMille; and hundreds of thousands of non-VIP Mumbaikars were subjected to horrendous traffic snarls for a week as a garland of policemen graced the thoroughfare leading to the venue (and woe betide the ordinary Deshpande who got caught in the maelstrom). Girgaum Chowpatty was cordoned off for an entertainment spectacular worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah – and met the same fate. Our incandescent Prime Minister himself inaugurated the proceedings; and a beaming Maharashtra Chief Minister trumpeted how he had succeeded in bringing billions of dollars of foreign investment to his state. A good time was had by all.
Was it all worth it?
On the face of it – definitely. An impressive Rs.12.5 lakh crores of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) were signed and everything came up roses. The question is – how much of this will translate into actual projects? I believe we will be lucky if even 10% of the promises are realized.
There is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Narendra Modi and his lieutenants may believe they have dazzled the visiting dignitaries with India’s technical and industrial prowess, but these investors are no babes in the woods. They look for security of their investments which, to a large degree, depends on the stability of the country in which they are being induced to invest. And they base their opinion not on government pronouncements, but on how the rest of the world perceives us.
Recent Protests and Revolts
Right now the image is not flattering. The country seems to be in turmoil. Students across universities are agitating and in revolt. The government’s attempt to portray this as a left wing, anti-national plot is not cutting any ice. Levying an absurd charge of sedition against a student leader – and that too by the Home Minister of the country – without any concrete evidence, have sparked outrage in the international community. Widely respected intellectuals like Noam Chomski have felt compelled to speak out. International newspaper giants like the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian have written editorials lamenting what they perceive to be a growing manifestation of intolerance and insensitivity on the part of the ruling party.
The Patidar issue in the supposedly model state of Gujarat is still unresolved and their leader has gone on a hunger strike. Then there is the agitation for reservations by Jats in Haryana that has taken such a dangerous turn that the army had to be called out. Most embarrassingly for the government, the agitators are holding the capital of India to ransom by denying water from reaching Delhi and disrupting rail services. In effect, they have imposed a blockade on the capital.
The Reel and the Real
The impression created is that almost everywhere in the country, communities are dissatisfied and rebelling. This is not the manufacturing powerhouse and prosperous shining India projected by PM Modi during his frequent trips abroad. The show of bonhomie characterized by hugs at summits does not mean much when it comes down to brass tacks. Foreign leaders are not influenced by what they are told; they go by what they can see for themselves.
Another reality is that most of the countries that seem eager to invest in India do not really regard our country as the advanced nation Modi is eager to portray. They see the grinding poverty everywhere; they see our commercial capital Mumbai awash in slums; they see trains crammed to capacity with hundreds travelling on the roofs. They see a significant proportion of the population of a “modern” democracy trapped in a medieval mind-set. Just recently, there was a report that a khap panchayat had issued a diktat forbidding girls under 18 from using cell phones.
Most perplexingly, they witness a phenomenon that is uniquely Indian. They see large groups of people aspiring – indeed agitating – not to get ahead, but to be classified as ‘backward’. They do this to be included in ‘quotas’ at the expense of merit. This is the antithesis of the can-do spirit that Americans, in particular, value so highly. Under these circumstances, who will want to Make in India?
So that is how it stands. A lot of hoopla, a lot of self-congratulation all round, delegates going back to their home countries reminiscing about how they were treated like kings. However, foreign investors are savvy enough to separate show from substance. Make in India and Start-up India extravaganzas are fine, but what Modi needs to do is to convince foreign leaders and businessmen that they are investing in a stable country, where their investment will not literally go up in smoke. I’m sure there is a lot of soul searching going on. It is the lure of cheap manufacturing and rising profits conflicting with apprehensions about security of their investment. Which view will win out? Only time will tell.
Firoze Hirjikaka is a retired civil engineer and freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org