PM at Davos: As Donald Trump puts America First, Narendra Modi stakes India's claim for global leadership

There’s a vacuum in global leadership ever since President Donald Trump famously put America First. In his keynote address on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum (WEF), Narendra Modi showed he was ready to step in. The speech — his maiden at Davos and only the second by an Indian prime minister at that forum in over two decades — was statesmanlike, purposeful and directional.

 PM at Davos: As Donald Trump puts America First, Narendra Modi stakes Indias claim for global leadership

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets the audience after delivering his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. AP

Modi highlighted three main challenges confronting the post-Cold War global order – climate change, terrorism and protectionism — and sought to provide an Indian solution to each of these challenges while drawing from ancient civilisational mores, traditions and wisdom.

It was interesting to see him bring ‘climate change’ to the front and centre of his discourse — recognised in the emerging markets as a ‘first world’ problem — and identifying it as the primary cause for global concern.

He frequently cited passages from the Upanishads to get his point across: An effort to tie the past with the present and show that answers to many of our problems may lie in India's past, if only we are willing to listen to it.

It is easy to miss the significance of the prime minister’s speech. From being perceived as laggards in the battle against climate change and an obstinate obstacle that the world must find a way to deal with, India was placed at the forefront of a fight that the US has recently given up on. Modi’s intent was clear. He sought to pick up the baton that Trump dropped.

It must count as visionary and decisive leadership to be at the helm of the world’s second-most populous nation (on course to be on top) and own the climate change battle at no less cost to its economy which lies at a developmental change. That Modi chose to do this indicates he is aware of the role India must play in leading the global order.

Towards that end, Modi recalled that India already achieved a third (60 gigawatts) of India's clean energy target. India, he said, aimed to produce 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. He also included a jibe against the richer nations who either abdicated their responsibilities or were unwilling to lend poorer nations a hand.

“Glaciers are receding, the Arctic ice is melting, islands are going underwater or are about to. Heat and cold, excessive rain and drought: Effects of extreme weather are seen everywhere. Even here, we are seeing the highest snowfall in 20 years. We should have shed our divisions and united to tackle the challenge, but we must ask honestly if we have done so. Everyone says climate emissions must be reduced, But how many developed countries reach out to developing nations with the technology required to do so?” he asked.

Modi identified terrorism as the second major threat and warned the major powers against differentiating between ‘good and bad terrorism’.

“Terrorism is a big threat but an even bigger threat is the distinction between “good” terrorism and “bad” terrorism,” he said, adding: “It is painful to see some youngsters getting radicalised.” Modi didn’t need the Davos platform to take on Pakistan. He was aware of the Trump administration’s stand against Pakistan’s habitual perfidy. When the US has put Islamabad on notice, it made little sense for the prime minister to add to a subject where India’s position has been consistent and clear.

Battling the shadow of Xi Jinping

Modi’s jibe was likely aimed at China, which finds a way to back its ‘iron brother’ each time Pakistan faces global ire for rearing snakes in its backyard. Though, this wasn’t the only time Modi took aim at China (without naming it). On setting aside differences to tackle the challenges jointly, Modi stressed on the need to adhere to a rules-based regime: A code word against China’s disruptive behaviour.

In many ways, Modi’s speech was also aimed at showcasing to the world why India’s rise was important for the preservation of the liberal democratic order. Modi was also fighting against Xi Jinping who cast a spell last year at this snowy Alpine town.

In his keynote address last year, Xi wowed the global elite by posing as the champion of free trade. Xi, as the world has learnt quite quickly, is a pretender to the throne. China isn’t a champion, but a threat to free trade. Its disruptive model of growth tears apart all rules-based regimes.

Quite like Xi, Modi stressed on the ills of isolationism as a backlash against globalisation (which he warned is losing its lustre) but unlike the Chinese president, he reminded his audience that India’s rise was rooted in democratic values and principles, and its growth was therefore deferential to and preserving of the liberal-democratic order.

Modi’s focus on a consensus-based and inclusive approach to growth was an effort to drive home the ideological difference with China, and there wasn't a shadow of doubt he was tapping into the widespread concerns over China’s assertive ascent. This was the prime minister telling the world that India was ready to become the leader the world wanted it to be.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2018 10:32:36 IST