A Passage to India.
WASHINGTON, DC: Since immigrating to the United States more than four decades ago, I have visited India a number of times. Every other winter, I travel with my brothers, nephews and nieces to Azamgarh, the town where I was born and spent my formative years, for what has now become a biennial reunion of our extended family.
Even though I squeeze in a few speaking engagements and official events, mainly in Delhi and Mumbai, into the itinerary, those visits are very personal in nature. Surrounded by friends and relations, they are virtual trips down memory lane.
So when I received an invitation from Brookings Institution this past summer to join its India study tour delegation, I was looking forward to a different kind of a passage to India — not the usual spiritual retreats that help me maintain the bonds and rekindle relationships with both people and the land, but an intellectual and knowledge-expanding endeavor.
That is precisely what the 10-day trip provided.
Led by Strobe Talbott, Brookings’ Indophile president, the 24-member delegation visited three of India’s most happening metropolises, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and two cities that symbolize its ancient glory, Jodhpur and Agra.
The 24-member delegation, which reached India on October 31, included a number of trustees, and members of the institution’s various advisory boards and councils. Throughout the visit, the members got rare opportunities to learn about India from its policymakers and political, business, and thought leaders.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that the India I set foot in the autumn of 2014 was vastly different from the one I left in February 2013. The transition from Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi could not have been starker.
At the beginning of last year, the public mood in the country was very gloomy, with the then-United Progressive Alliance facing a huge crisis of confidence. It had lost much of its middle class support due to numerous corruption-related scandals and a dip in the economic growth rate. Foreign investors were also disillusioned because of the slow pace of economic reforms.
But in November 2014, it was a different story. The mood was one of positive enthusiasm and anticipation.
There was a sense that Modi has turned the corner on a number of areas, beginning with the economy. Goldman Sachs predicts the Indian economy to grow steadily in the next few years: 6 percent this year, 6.3 percent in 2015, 6.8 percent in 2016 and at 7 percent in 2017.
Inflation is finally under control, thanks to a series of sound policies implemented by Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, who is on leave from University of Chicago’s Booth School.
The prime minister is going ahead with his plans to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, which will also boost the economy.
Overall, everyone we met in India vouched that the economic condition in India is extremely favorable and that the environment for investment is excellent.
The second change I noticed was the support the new government has among the public and the media. India’s middle class, the driving force behind Prime Minister Modi’s victory in the general election six months ago, seems to be solidly behind the newly elected premier.
The last two years of UPA were marked by policy paralysis, a prime minister who was not leading and a lack of public support for policies. So far, Modi has proved himself to be a far more decisive leader.
From the American standpoint, perhaps the biggest change I noticed was the re-initiation of a cordial relationship between the United States and India. Before Modi assumed power, ties were going south.
A diplomatic row over the arrest and eventual deportation of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobgrade in New York for visa fraud nearly a year ago had created a lot of mistrust between the two countries. American businesses and members of Congress were openly critical of the Singh government’s refusal to protect the intellectual property rights of US companies and its inability to go ahead with the economic reforms.
Even though the two countries still disagree on a number of issues — they openly clashed at the World Trade Organization on the food security issue earlier this year — gone were the rancor and finger-pointing that had characterized the ties over the past several years.
Part of the reason for the sea change in relations is Modi’s track record in Gujarat as a pro-business administrator, the huge support he commands in the United States within the Indian American community and his highly successful US visit in September. That visit, especially his address at Madison Square Garden before an adoring crowd of more than 18,000 was a public relations coup d’état.
The biggest proof that the bilateral relations are back on track is the upcoming visit of President Obama to New Delhi to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations next month. Obama is the first US president to do that.
The presidential visit was announced after our delegation had returned from India. But I could feel the positive vibes in our relations meetings with US diplomats in India or Indian officials.
There was also enthusiasm in Delhi’s political circles for Richard Verma, who was confirmed by the Senate last week, as the first Indian American to become a US ambassador to India.
In sum, this tour was an invaluable learning experience. For a number of delegates, it was their first visit to India. But whether it was one’s first visit, or the 100th , India is a place that never ceases to amaze.
All of us benefited from having someone like Brookings’ President Talbott, who has a long intellectual association with India, to help understand the complexities of this amazing country. I being the lone Indian American member of the delegation, I was also called upon to play the role of an interpreter of India by my colleagues quite frequently as well.
My wife, Debbie, and I were among the last of this delegation to leave India, as we stayed in Delhi for a few more days for meetings and a trip to Aligarh, my alma mater. When we left the country in mid-November, I departed with a strong sense of optimism about the country’s future, and US-India relations. I also left with some new perspectives and insights from this passage to India that will impact my passages to come.
(The writer, a businessman and philanthropist based in the Washington, DC, area, is a Brookings Council Member. His website is www.frankislam.com.)