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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 42, October 11, 2014

Editorial: Hindi-Amreeki Bhai Bhai

Saturday 11 October 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the United States has been one long reality TV show for Indian news channels. It was not just the PM, who is said to have consumed only hot water through the trip, who contributed to the show. All other trappings of reality TV were present. Indian-American crowds heckling a senior journalist, the journalist losing his cool and heckling them back thus ensuing fisticuffs, well-educated chatterrati justifying it all, an industrialist saying that the PM would never approve, and then saying he was but airing his views on what the PM would have felt, and the like.

But if one leaves the drama aside and dispassionately focuses on the official statements and positions, it would be quite clear that this is one more area of generating over-expectations. PM Modi told the Indian-American community that he would love to repeal one law per day as opposed to his predecessor, who took pride in the number of new laws his government introduced (quite a few of them, including a messy new company law, which the PM’s sidelined party colleagues helped pilot with back-room diplomacy).

Later in the trip, the PM would ask US investors to come in and invest before the queue got too long. However, the key problem for the PM is that while he confessedly (refer to the Independence Day speech) is an “outsider” struggling to come to terms with New Delhi, there is an excessive build-up of expectations from his government, which is multiplying the risk of serious disappointment. The real problem is that Indian laws still require an investor, whether Indian or foreign, to queue somewhere to be able to invest and conduct business—perhaps the PM was being a pragmatist by acknowledging the relevance of the queue, instead of projecting an era without queues.

Most of the laws that impede smooth investment in India by Indians and foreigners alike are not directly under the control of his executive government—regulatory hurdles, inexplicable taxation policy (the PM had accused the earlier government of “tax terrorism”), licensing issues, are a few critical areas that need a deeper policy intervention to enable his “Make in India” campaign see a semblance of reality. It does not need an abstruse marketing consultant to point out that if a product is advertised too well but its qualities do not match up, market-share will move to other competing products.

The reality TV show had other aspects of law enforcement and policy too. Speaking to Indian Americans congregated in New York, the PM unilaterally announced his intention to do away with visa requirements for Americans of Indian origin, without waiting to gauge what specific concessions the US would make for Indians (say, the number of work visas). It is true that India had tightened her visa and passport standards after American terrorist and Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Headley was discovered to have played a key role in terror attacks in India—including the gruesome attack on Mumbai. For that, innocent Indian Americans bore the brunt—for example, Indian passports can only be renewed in India and not in Indian embassies.

A reasonable review was indeed in order, but the US has driven a hard bargain and has protected American Headley from India. He was tried in Chicago (not Guantanamo Bay or Abu Gharib) and is reported to have confessed to planning terror attacks in India. Headley has a 35-year prison sentence, with guaranteed American assurance that he would never be extradited to India, making one wonder how any nation could do this to a real friend. On a different note, Indian financial sector regulators have recently put in place regulations to help US tax authorities monitor and detect tax avoidance by Indian Americans through transactions in India.

Whether India has received anything in return from the recent PM visit is not quite clear. Indeed, the Indian PM’s name came first in the joint by-line to a co-authored editorial in the Washington Post. Had it been India and Pakistan, the diplomats would have spent months negotiating whose name should be the first in the byline and it might have never been written. Yet, the Chalein Saath Saath roadshow appears quite over the top, and can come dangerously close to the 1950s’ Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai slogan and its denouement.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.