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Narendra Modi's four-nation tour: PM missed a chance to talk on IT with Merkel, but it's not too late

In cricket, batsmen survey the field and play shots at the spur of the moment. Diplomats, it seems, play to rehearsed scripts, and in the process, miss opportunities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has left Germany after what is officially touted as a satisfying visit of a charm offensive in Europe but there is plenty in the subtext to suggest that India may have missed an opportunity boost its case in economic relations by pushing for a liberal German/European visa regime that can help India's somewhat staggering IT sector.

If only Modi had made a point or two on visas and technology in the context of a war of words between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump, he would have turned a simple meeting into a great opportunity by driving home a message that would have scored runs on both sides of the Atlantic. The essence of the message should have been: "Germany/EU need to accord a special/liberal status for Indians in their visa regimes, as Indian knowledge workers are assets in a new wave of industrial expansion." Apart from strengthening India's bargaining position in trade talks with EU, that would send a message to Uncle Sam: "America's loss is Germany's gain."

Official mouthings at the end of Modi's clearly warm meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel seem full of platitudes, with a dozen agreements strong more on style than substance. The reports reel off a set of sectors in which cooperation is being increased, but the fact is that enhancing a strategic partnership has been a shaky issue for more than a decade now, with several issues ranging from tackling terrorism to migration on the table. A broad-based free trade agreement has been stalling  after 13 India-EU summits.

Now, cut to US-German relations playing out this week in headlines that saw Trump using his by-now familiar hostile tweeting strategy to directly challenge Merkel's measured statements showing a Transatlantic divide. As the rift played out as Modi met Merkel, we would have loved to hear the Indian PM speak up in a way that would have sent a message for India to have a better visa regime as a strategic partner to aid Indian professionals, but we heard nothing.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Getty Images

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Getty Images

Consider the fact that Trump has severely restricted India's IT companies by cracking down on H-1B visas, and India's IT sector is looking at Japan and Germany as crucial markets to make up for the troubles in the US. Germany now accounts for only 5 percent of India's $117 billion IT-business process management exports while the US accounts for 60 percent.

There are more than 1,600 German companies and 600 German joint ventures in India, and to be talking about a red carpet to German companies is a case of being trapped in the 1990s mindset. Everybody from software giant SAP to insurer Allianz and engineering leader Siemens are enjoying a high-profile German presence in India. It is time to talk other stuff.

Global consulting company McKinsey observed nearly two decades ago that a "war for talent" would mark the future. The future is here now, and India is swarming with talent. Indian-borns are running Google, Microsoft and Adobe, and the former tech czar of Germany's own SAP, Vishal Sikka, is now running India's Infosys.

Germany has come a long way since its Xenophobic Kinder Statt Inder (Children, not Indians) days when Indian software engineers felt unwelcome in a land where they had language problems as well. But India needs to reinforce its case in Europe/Germany because a wave of Islamist terror and the wrong kind of migration into the continent has kindled a fresh wave of right-wing protectionism. Here's where India and its diplomats need to go that extra mile to drive home a simple point: "Our talent is good for you and us, and we need an easier, smoother, bigger visa pie to play with and take on Trumpism so that we can enjoy the gains of the Fourth Industrial Revolution."

It is still not too late for India to talk real business with Germany and Europe because bilateral investment treaties are up for renewal. One solid point that emerged at the end of Modi's visit to Berlin is that the Prime Minister has decided to push forward the negotiation of a free-trade agreement with the EU.

While Germany talks of an investment treaty that would protect its small businesses, India needs to put positive migration more aggressively on the table, and also bring in cooperation on climate change where Trump could be trumped by creative thinking that helps India and EU alike. India has to jump from the 1990s mindset of capital-oriented cooperation to a 21st century approach that emphasizes talent and technology.

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

Updated Date: May 31, 2017 15:41 PM

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