Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just completed his much anticipated trip to the United States, returning to Delhi after a five day visit to New York and Washington, D.C. The enthusiasm, coverage, and according to some, hype, that Modi’s trip to the U.S. generated was enormous. Regardless of the actual policy accomplishments of Modi’s trip, many will regard it as a success. As many recent incidents and events have shown, Indians, especially the middle-class Indians who are most likely to influence public opinion, are prickly about India’s honor and pride. They want a leader who is seen as being a proactive advocate of India and is heard and respected by the international community and world powers. In other words, they want a leader who can generate buzz, and Modi accomplishes this.
Of course, it would be problematic if Modi’s government only aimed to generate buzz for the sake of buzz. But this does not seem to be the case, as Modi and people around Modi have been fairly clear on their foreign policy, economic, and development vision. In speech after speech, a clear ideology that we can call “Modism” or “Moditva” has emerged, a vision that seeks a strong and proactive role for India that includes being heard at international forums, reaching out to non-resident Indians, and courting investment. Modi worked toward all these goals during his visit to the United States. To reach these goals, a certain amount of marketing is necessary. Modi is a master at marketing and India is in dire need of marketing.
Marketing is important because it generates the conditions and circumstances that lead to actual policy triumphs. For example, for investment in India to increase, not only does India need to change its policies, but it needs to convince foreign companies to invest in India. Much of Modi’s actions since his election and in the U.S. were a form of marketing aimed at both an international and domestic audience. This is especially important in the Indian context because Modi needs to convince a domestic audience with many skeptics that India needs a drastic change in its approach to key areas, especially after decades of doing things another way. Even if India’s old policies were not working well, it is hard to shake a bureaucratic system from decades of complacency and habit. Modi’s task is not too dissimilar to Deng Xiaoping’s in the first few years after 1978: he must insistently build a new consensus drastically different than the old one in his country.
India has also been poorly marketed on the international arena by the Indian government in the past. Despite its large size and demand for clout, it has frequently been ignored and not sought out on major international issues. Unlike Russian or Chinese leaders, its leaders have not acted like international statesmen in recent times. India developed an unfriendly reputation as a destination for international investment and is widely written off by foreign companies. Domestically, India’s image has largely been shaped by the Western media, which tends to glorify or disparage its poverty. Media coverage of social problems, like caste and rape, have further hurt India’s image. In short, India has failed to portray itself as an attractive country in multiple realms. Of course, marketing alone won’t change this, but marketing goes hand in hand with policy improvements.
It thus has become necessary for India to rebrand itself. Cynics will of course argue that this is propaganda. But propaganda creates an image that is not in accordance with reality while marketing simply advertises, reinforces, and places a positive spin on existing facts. And since there are hardly any neutral facts in the media age, virtually all forms of news, advertisement, marketing, and imagery put some sort of spin or the other on facts. It is beneficial for any country to generate a positive rather than a negative spin to its facts.
Therefore, marketing India was indeed a major accomplishment of Modi’s visit. It is a necessary course of action for a country like India that wishes to be taken seriously as a major world and economic power. India will need to continue to consciously market itself far into the future to continuously make itself attractive to tourists, business, and other countries. Beyond marketing, however, Modi’s visit did accomplish some interesting and practical goals.
In a major foreign policy shift for the Indian government, Modi met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday night in New York, the first bilateral meeting between Israeli and Indian leaders in over a decade. The two leaders are reported to have gotten along well and are laying the groundwork for closer ties between their countries. India has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause in the name of anti-colonial solidarity, but there is really no point in doing so anymore. On the other hand, India and Israel have a number of mutual strategic interests, namely fighting radical Islamism in the region between them. Netanyahu invited Modi to Israel for a state visit. It would be interesting and indeed groundbreaking if Modi did make an official trip to Jerusalem.
Also in New York, Modi announced new visa and travel schemes that will make it easier for people to get to India. This in turn will help business and people to people connections. “People of Indian Origin” (PIO) cardholders will now be able to get lifelong visas for travel to India. Previously, this option had only been open to those of Indian origin who had applied to another scheme, called the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI). Modi’s plan thus eliminates tiers in India’s policies towards overseas Indians. Additionally, U.S. tourists will be able to get electronic travel authorizations and visas on arrival in India.
In New York, Modi also met with business leaders and urged them to invest in India. He elaborated on policies he would implement to facilitate investment in India later during his trip in Washington D.C. at a speech at the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC). Modi’s remarks were well-received by USIBC and American government and business leaders, as Modi said that “today, I can say with confidence that within six months, we will implement and enforce all parameters of ease of business.” Modi argued that India’s failure to live up to its potential before was due to the fact that India did not make beneficial policy decisions and that the solution to India’s problems was mostly a matter of getting a move on things such as policy changes.
Modi expressed a desire to liberalize India’s economy during his speech at USIBC, arguing that India’s government’s job “is to facilitate things and not run a business.” Modi also added that “the less the regulations and law, the more fresh air” and “there should be no existence of tax terrorism. There should be a simplification of taxation system.” Expressing a strong belief in India’s future prospects, Modi urged American businesses to invest in India before the queue became too long.
Finally, Modi met with American political leaders including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry. Although these meetings were mostly heavier on rhetoric than policy, they still set the stage for future policies as well as allowing President Obama the chance to get to know Modi. At the very least, Obama and Modi got along and are willing to work together towards common goals, as their co-authored editorial in the Washington Post declares. Though vague and filled with platitudes, the editorial nonetheless suggests several areas where India and the United States could cooperate on concretely in the future. However, the main thrust of Modi’s visit to the United States was to discuss business and investment (Modi’s top priority) rather than to make political deals.