Look at India Inc, not India ink

By Dev Nadkarni

As Prime Minister John Key prepared to leave for the ASEAN summit in Hanoi last week, the media here speculated on the possibility of the Paul Henry episode casting a shadow over his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It would come as no surprise to most Indians and keen India watchers anywhere that the Henry incident did not even get a mention during the brief meeting that the two leaders had on the margins of the summit.

It was hardly the kind of incident that would deserve to be dignified with a discussion between the leaders at such a high profile event as this. But the media thought there was a real possibility that this would happen.

Focusing on the trivial instead of looking at the big picture is nothing new. During former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s official visit to India some years ago, the accompanying New Zealand news media was far too focused on embarrassing her and the Labour Party rather than picking up opportunities for New Zealand business.

Ms Clark visited Larsen and Toubro and Reliance Industries with the Kiwi business delegation when the media gathered that the two companies were involved in India’s nuclear programme and criticised her for visiting the factories because it gave a bad look to New Zealand’s avowed anti nuclear stance.

Business delegates later admitted that they were amazed at the sophistication and professionalism with which Indian industry worked – especially in the technology and creative industries sectors like animation – saying the visit was an eye-opener. Little of those views were ever inked out by the presses here. What a missed opportunity.

In recent weeks though, the Ambanis’ excessively opulent residential tower in Mumbai got some press here. Undoubtedly, it was a great human interest story. And it came with the inevitable observation that as well as sweeping views of the shimmering Arabian Sea, the tower also came with views of a large number of the 25 per cent of India’s poor who live on less than a US dollar a day and who eat, drink, sleep – and defecate – on the commercial capital’s streets. A fair observation of course, even if hardly surprising, given the mind-boggling contrasts in everything Indian.

What didn’t get a mention was that at a least a couple of million of these people are being lifted out of poverty by the sheer power of the country’s economic juggernaut every single year.

What also didn’t make it to the headlines here is that Aurangabad, a provincial town in western India not far from Mumbai, helped lift the gloom in distant Stuttgart winning a sales contest run by Mercedes Benz’s Indian operations for dealers in smaller Indian towns. Some 150 people in the town – famous for its proximity to the world renowned ancient Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Ellora – bought high-end Mercedes cars in less than a month.

This is but one instance of wealth beginning to percolate down India’s complex social layers – slowly, haphazardly, unevenly, but surely. And propelling that is India Inc – a late entrant in the race because of decades of stifling socialist-style overregulation, but one that is powering its way into uncharted territories and striking it rich all over the globe.

And what hasn’t been reported, at least as yet, is that US President Barack Obama will spend Diwali with Mumbai kids this weekend. He will stay at the recently refurbished Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the finest and most expensive in the world – even before it was brutally mauled by Pakistani terrorists killing hundreds in late 2008.

Some 250 chief executives of the biggest American corporations are accompanying the president and deals worth US$10 billion are expected to be signed as a result of the visit, which will produce some 100,000 jobs in the US alone.

Both the Indian and US governments have decided to keep politics low profile and concentrate instead on business, though the gloom of the latest political developments in the US will weigh heavily on the president and his delegation.

India is clearly headed for the centre stage of world business.

Mr Key is reported to have told Mr Singh he would visit India with a high level business delegation next year even as the FTA preliminaries between the two countries progress.

It would be worthwhile for the local media to focus on the real issues about developing trade and commerce between the two nations in the interests of a better informed decision making process at all levels including the grassroots.

May the bright lights of Diwali help take the focus away from the stereotypical, blotchy blackness of India ink to the spectacularly brilliant possibilities of engaging with India Inc.

Happy Diwali to you all, dear readers.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, November 2010