Real lesson from PM Modi’s US visit: A more equal economic partnership

Joint press conference of PM Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden highlighted a more equal economic partnership than was normal in the past

| Updated: 23 June, 2023 7:19 pm IST
Most analysts have tended to ignore the real significance of the joint press conference of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden

In focusing mainly on a question regarding human and minority rights in India, most analysts have tended to ignore the real significance of the joint press conference of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden on Thursday: it highlighted a more equal economic partnership than was normal in the past.

The most striking moment of the press interaction was when President Biden pointed out with a tone of gratitude that Indian purchases would create jobs in several places in the US. Indeed, just Air India’s order for 200 to 300 Boeing aircraft, including the 787 Dreamliner, will create a variety of jobs in the US.

President Biden also mentioned the need to revamp the supply chain for semiconductors, indicating that the US sees India as a potentially important site for the manufacturers that he is squeezing out of China.

There was a time when ‘developing countries’ used to crave investment and orders from corporations based in so-called ‘developed countries’ in order to spur their economies, and provide employment – albeit for cheap wages – in their ‘developing economies.’

That’s changed. And relatively few of us seem to notice it. Now, countries like the US need markets in places like India, including for such high-value products as jetliners. Plus, they see that their need to sell to India will, on current trends, increase – perhaps manifold.

Plus, they need India’s well-recognised talents and expertise for the production of goods that they require but want to access from countries other than Russia or China—like parts of electronics value chains.

Rising India
So radical has the change been in recent times, more so over the past few months, that leading Western analysts have begun to predict that India is likely to overtake China in a decade or two.

They talk of India as the next superpower, pointing out that demographic challenges could contribute to China sliding downward even before its putative peak.

They argue that, since China has relatively fewer youth than had been projected (apparently through fudged figures), and now has higher wage and lifestyle expectations, a smaller-than-projected working-age segment of the population must pay taxes to provide services for the benefit of a relatively large ageing population.

That doesn’t make for a booming economy. Even France’s President Emmanuel Macron is fighting to reduce France’s pension bill.

In the US too, analysts point out that the ‘baby boomer’ generation is just reaching the age of retirement. They too will now need to be supported through the taxes of the numerically smaller generation that followed.

Meanwhile, high wages and long leisure expectations have long blunted the US’s competitiveness in a globalised world. By contrast, the younger demographic, and relatively low wage expectations, in at least north India, make India more competitive.

President Biden also pointed to the 4 million US citizens of Indian descent who are not only a vibrant part of that country but, on average, the highest earners in the US. Plus, the White House could not have missed the fact that several from this segment now head some of the largest US corporations and such global institutions as the World Bank.

Presumption of superiority
This changing perception, and relationship, is inextricably linked to questions about human rights in India. For, the ground has shifted beneath both the rich nations, which once lectured on such issues and the once poor and weak.

The presumption of dominant countries in the West to tell those who were economically dependent on them how they should conduct themselves stemmed from the racism that earlier undergirded slavery, Imperialism, and colonialism.

It was/is based on an at least subconscious conviction that the Humanism and other attributes of White European culture (which first spurred economic growth and then accompanied global exploitation) are superior to other societal cultures, and therefore worthy of emulation.

Those who received such lectures in the half-century or more since the end of Imperialism needed economic aid, armaments, and strategic support from the countries whose leaders lectured them. So, they often heard their former tormentors politely.

That has changed, partly owing to Chinese investments. In the past few months, some African leaders have publicly snubbed Western leaders who sought to advise them. One told President Macron off at a similar joint press conference. Another told the German Speaker to explain why Africans were treated shabbily in Germany before asking about the number of Chinese in Africa.

External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar too has made it clear that India is not prepared for anyone to talk down to it. That is a tradition that began with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and reached its zenith under Mrs Indira Gandhi’s leadership.

No doubt, those in the US government who prepared PM Modi’s visit must have been keenly aware of this history, as well as the current and potential economic clout of the nation PM Modi leads.

Expected question
Those who wish for the US government to raise these concerns should keep in mind the changed framework of international relations between the once-richer and the erstwhile much poorer.

No doubt PM Modi was prepared for the sort of question he faced, for there had been much talk – indeed, pressure – about raising such concerns. Perhaps the journalist who asked the question might have put him on the mat more effectively if she had asked a less predictable question.

PM Modi gave what could easily have been a ringing political speech about India’s traditions of diversity and harmony, and its constitutional values, including the prohibition of discrimination. One wonders if he meant that as a tangential critique of legal inequities in some neighbouring countries.

PM Modi did well to speak in Hindi, with which he is far more comfortable than with English. He did not seem to refer to the teleprompter for this reply, although he did look at it during his initial statement at the beginning of the joint press conference, which followed his meeting with Biden in the White House.

David Devadas is a journalist and security, politics and geopolitics analyst
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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