By Sarwar Alam
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounted a defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday (23), urging joint action on climate change and economic cooperation, in a speech some delegates took as a swipe at US president Donald Trump’s America First agenda.
Modi, making the forum’s first speech by an Indian head of state in more than two decades, did not mention Trump by name but he criticised the rise of protectionism in remarks delivered three days before the US president will address the summit.
“Instead of globalization, the power of protectionism is putting its head up,” Modi said, speaking in Hindi and causing an initial flurry in the audience of business and political leaders as people reached for their translation headsets.
“Their wish is not only to save themselves from globalization, but to change the natural flow of globalization.
“It feels like the opposite of globalisation is happening. The negative impact of this kind of mindset and the wrong priorities cannot be considered less dangerous than climate change or terrorism.
“In fact everyone is talking about an interconnected world but we will have to accept the fact that globalisation is slowly losing its lustre.
“The solution to this worrisome situation is not isolationism. Its solution is understanding and accepting change and formulating agile and flexible policies for these changing times.”
Modi led a big government and business delegation to the summit in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, aiming to showcase India as a fast-growing economic power and a potential driver of global growth.
His opening address was a moment of personal triumph for the nationalist leader once shunned by the West for failing to prevent communal rioting in his home state. The occasion also recognized India’s growth as an economic and geopolitical power.
Anindya Bakrie, chief executive of media company PT Bakrie Global Ventura, part of Indonesia’s Bakrie conglomerate, said Modi’s remarks were a welcome contrast to US isolationism.
“For developing countries, when we hear the US talking about isolationism it’s a bit concerning. So to have more and more leaders talk about the benefits of globalization is really good,” Bakrie said.
Arun Kumar, chairman and CEO of accounting firm KPMG in India, said: “He laid out where India stands in terms of his preference for a multi-polar and multicultural world.”
Under his America First agenda, Trump has threatened to withdraw from the North American free-trade agreement, disavowed the global climate change accord and criticised global institutions including the United Nations and NATO.
Modi’s speech echoed some of the points made by Chinese president Xi Jinping at last year’s Davos summit, but he failed to generate the same enthusiasm.
A year ago, Xi, speaking days before Trump was inaugurated, staked out China’s position as the world’s economic powerhouse, promising a greater openness to globalization.
However, Xi, who is not attending this year, is not seen to have delivered on the broad promises made at Davos over the past year, but his speech was seen as a key moment in China’s attempt to fill a void created by a more inward-looking United States.
Modi arrived in Davos on Monday for a one-day trip. His visit was marred by travel delays, as heavy snow in the ski resort town made it impossible for Modi to take a helicopter to Davos from Zurich and the roads were clogged with traffic.
In his speech, Modi laid out three big challenges facing the world: climate change, terrorism and growing protectionism.
“The result of this is that we are seeing new types of tariff and non-tariff-based barriers being imposed. Bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations appear to have come to a halt,” he said.
He said the world must come together to solve these issues and India could show it the way, referring frequently to ancient Indian thought and scriptures that call for harmony between humans and nature and refer to the world as family.
Modi channelled the founding father of independent India, Mohandas Gandhi, who he said had argued that “I don’t want the walls and windows of my house to be closed from all directions.
“I want that the winds of cultures of all countries enter my house with aplomb and go out also. However I will not accept my feet to be uprooted by these winds.”
Modi said climate change was a major threat to the world, yet the world had failed to come together to tackle it. He said everyone wanted carbon emissions to be cut, but the rich world was not ready to help developing economies with new technology.
India, one of the world’s fastest growing major economies and a growing contributor to pollution, has said it is keen to honour its commitment to clean up the environment despite Trump pulling out of the Paris accord on cutting carbon emissions.
Modi also highlighted reforms and policies his administration had undertaken to make India more open. He said his government had abolished some 1,400 archaic laws.
“We are removing red tape and laying the red carpet,” Modi said.
Touting India’s growing appeal to foreign investors. Modi said: “With complete self-confidence and fearlessness, India is welcoming this wave from all over the world,”
Some business leaders said India still had a lot of work to do to attract more investment, including taming bureaucracy, tackling corruption and cleaning up pollution.
“He’s saying this is a different party in power and it’s trying different things. The question is will the country give him enough time to really change things,” said Vim Maru, group retail director at UK-based Lloyds Bank.
Despite its impressive growth under the Modi government, India displays some of the world’s worst extremes of the rich-poor divide, an issue exercising the 70-odd leaders and thousands of delegates engaging in the week of debate high in the Swiss Alps.
Undermining rosy data on the world economy are warnings that elite fora such as Davos must start finding solutions for everyone else down the income ladder, as the “one percent” amass untold riches a decade since a major financial crisis erupted.
– Inequality ‘out of control’ –
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said despite the world economy starting to fire on all cylinders, “there are still too many people left out from the recovery and acceleration of growth”.
In a report unveiled in Davos, British aid group Oxfam said the world’s richest one percent raked in 82 percent of the wealth created last year while the poorest half of the population received none.
“Our report shows that inequality is out of control globally. It shows that our broken economies are rewarding wealth and not hard work, and those are the decisions of our political and business leaders,” said Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima.
“And I’m here to make them uncomfortable,” she said, invoking the Davos forum’s official theme this year: “Creating a shared future in a fractured world.”
“Oxfam is here to tell them that that wealth, that kind of world where people at the bottom are trapped there, and the few at the top are rewarded, is a dangerous world, it’s a fractured world,” Byanyima said.