Narendra Modi in Washington, DC: Forget photo ops, India may be giving far more than it's getting

When the pennies are really counted after President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hold talks this week, would India gain or lose pounds? Er, make that US dollars! Whatever the currency, there is a case to measure the outcome of Modi's landmark US visit carefully, because the atmospherics and body language suggest unusual warmth but final outcomes may not necessarily go India's way.

It all depends on which headlines you notice -- and how they all come together in the final analysis.

While Modi is going gaga over the impending introduction of the goods and services tax (GST)  -- both as a magnet for foreign investors and a case study  for US business schools, domestic news suggesting teething troubles in the most revolutionary taxation leap in India since Independence may cause an eyebrow or two to go up.

More important are hardcore bilateral trade issues already on the table.

Modi met a galaxy of tech titans including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Google's Sundar Pichai, but they are not exactly Trump administration's key movers and shakers . They are among business leaders already partying in India. So the question to ask is: Can these CEOs influence the American presidency to bring back the visa mojo that India's software sector has lost in the tighter H-1B regime under Trump? Commentators tend to agree that Modi is unlikely to even try to make a headway on this issue during his US visit.

While Modi readied up for talks, sobering news came from Dr Reddy's (which you could call the Infosys of Indian pharma), cautioning investors that the end of "Obamacare" policies under Trump is a risk to business in the US. In fact, all of India's pharma sector has been put on the backfoot by Trump, even as the media focus has largely been on information technology.

File image of Narendra Modi. AP

File image of Narendra Modi. AP

While we worry about two of our prime knowledge-driven sectors, further concessions seem to be on the way for US business entities.

Amazon is expected to get government approval for entering the food retail business in July, becoming the first foreign giant to enter the category. This is happening even as Flipkart, Amazon's only real competitor in India, struggles to acquire rival Snapdeal. And we have not really heard much about whether the competition between them is uneven, hindering a level-playing field.

Modi's "Make In India" dream has indeed got a symbolic boost from a planned joint venture between the Tatas and Lockheed Martin to make F-16 fighter jets in India, but we are not sure how many jobs it will create. More important are doubts that the US may be dumping some outdated stuff in the name of a manufacturing boost in India.

That brings us to drones, the latter-day cousin of the fighter jets. India has a $ 2 billion (that's nearly Rs 13,000 crore) budget to buy drones and the US has approved the sale of drones that can help India spy but not engage in combat.

This happens even as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) places more satellites in space during a year of breathtaking milestones in rocket science. Er, would it be too much to ask if India should try making its own super drones and how the US can help? It must be noted ISRO already makes drones that help track weather.

We could also bring strong climate change disagreements between New Delhi and Washington to the cost-benefit equation, but, as they say on Facebook status messages, "It's complicated".

As they say in the Silicon Valley, "net net" India seems to have lost more than gained in economic relations since Trump came to power. After all, the blond US president has been a deal-cutting real estate billionnaire in his colourful past.

When we take a deep yoga breath and ask ourselves what India has given and what it has got beyond the photo opportunities and power meetings, a clearer picture may emerge. The jury is out.

(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)


Published Date: Jun 26, 2017 11:41 am | Updated Date: Jun 26, 2017 11:53 am


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