Can Modi reboot the superpower dream? That sounds like one more eardrum-splitting television debate about acchey din. Except this is not prime time television. It is eleven in the morning and in a literature festival panel comprising people not known to be agents of ear drum destruction. The panel evaluating Modi at six months, at the Times Litfest, reiterated what we already know - that big businesses are all gung-ho about the Modi government, while a fair number of intellectuals are considerably more wary.
Swaminathan Aiyar, an editor with The Times of India group and the author of the widely read column Swaminomics, summed up the challenge ahead of any Indian head of state with the following statement: "Bollywood is much more efficient than the Indian state. Actually, the greatest integrating agents in India have been cultural icons like Raj Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar, Shah Rukh Khan, not any political figure."
Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta and moderator of the panel seemed to agree with him and added Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan to the list. The sentiment that initially dominated the panel was not one that was in great awe of the present prime minister. The panelists did not find PM Modi's several claims to be in touch with the reality of India. Designer Rajeev Sethi, the man behind the artworks in the revamped Mumbai Airport summed up the apprehensions about Modi in the following statement: "Modi could be an instrument of change. But for me, the big thing will be when he becomes the change."
While half of the panelists were not ready to sing paeans for Modi's yet, the other half, comprising business honchos Rana Kapoor, MD and CEO of Yes Bank and Abanti Sankaranarayanan, managing director of Diageo, like most other corporate bigwigs, were willing to give the Modi government a chance. Explaining her stance, Sankaranarayanan, pointed at the newly disciplined bureaucracy. "Being a part of the alcohol industry gives me a fairly close ringside view of the functioning of a government. Since alcohol industry is one of the most regulated industries in India, I have had the occasion of frequenting the power corridors several times for various issues. With the new government, I see a renewed vigour in the bureaucracy. It's as if the government wants to listen to businesses, even if they are not behemoths like a Tata or Ambani. It comes across when you talk to the bureaucrats," said Sankaranarayanan.
The Diageo's chief's optimism was met by Kapoor's seemingly great faith in the new Modi government. Echoing lines mouthed by most big business houses in India, he chose to call 'Brand Modi' the 'anchor Brand' of India. He added that the road to India becoming a superpower begins at the tourism and hospitality sector. "Six million tourists visit India every year. We have 55 heritage sites. We have to ramp up our hospitality sector so that at least 25 million tourists visit India annually in the next few years," he declared.
But Gupta pointed out that while the idea of boosting tourism looks great on paper, the idea is undercut by several infrastructural issues in India - something that the Modi government is yet to turn its attention to, full time. He pointed out, "Where are the toilets for all these tourists we are inviting? For example, Hampi, it has everything but proper public toilets."
Kapoor had to agree to the fact that while Modi's foreign trips and the robust PR around it might have grabbed eyeballs, India has to offer an infrastructure that will sustain investors in India. Something that Aiyar too emphasised. "Calling Modi a brand is insulting the idea of a brand. An entity becomes brand following years of confidence invested in it by the public. The man has just won an election. And let me point out from my own travels in US, NRI's are super excited about him, not Americans. In fact, one US entrepreneur asked me, 'there's a lot of sizzle, where's the steak?" said Aiyar.
In fact, Sankaranarayanan later agreed, that even with the bureaucracy, while the top babus might have had to fall in line with the new PM, the mid and lower levels - ones which affect the masses the most - are yet to match the urgency of their top bosses. "That kind of accountability has to trickle down to all levels," she added.
Kapoor later also pointed out that along with 'Make In India', the PM should perhaps also add a 'Create in India' campaign so that indigenous skills, craft get promoted alongside labour. "Make in India has to rest on Create in India," he said, meaning apart from asking foreign enterprises to set base in India, indigenous ideas should also be honed. He added that the road to reforms has to be sped up too. "There are many business regulation reforms pending."
The verdict from the Litfest, however, was clear. While PM Modi has created the right kind of noise, he has to follow it up with action. And soon!
Updated Date: Dec 06, 2014 08:23 AM