Montreux, the scenic, tranquil Swiss town flanking the shores of Lake Geneva, is normally known for its annual jazz festival. But the event I attended in Montreux recently had neither musical tones nor orchestral sonorities. I was there to make a presentation on India to the Asia Regional heads of European Transnational corporations.
The influential Forum of CEOs of the top 300 European Transnational corporations (TNCs) — some of the world's largest European transnational corporations — have substantial investments in the “Triad” — North America, European Union and Asia, including India. They generate an estimated $2.5 trillion in value added and employ some 20 million workers, across the world.
The purpose of the annual event was frank information-sharing. Respecting the spirit of the Chatham House Rule that applies to this session, I cannot say anything about who said what. Only, unlike Jazz that draws the listener to a deeper league, this 90-minute discussion on India left me with my head hung in shame.
In my last column, I wrote about some of our Indian diplomats across the world who specialise in the ‘art of cover-up’. But, whitewash is not the monopoly of diplomats.
A number of our politicians and bureaucrats often avoid, deflect or, silence criticism from foreign investors at private meetings. Suffice it to say that we must stop this. Top European investors regard this as even more reprehensible than the real state of affairs that India is seeing, today.
Let me now share the impressions of top European investors.
Growth story intact
There is no gainsaying the fact that the Pranab Mukherjee regime in Government was mired in controversies and confusion. It was felt by the European CEOs that he was a major contributory to the policy paralysis and governance deficit.
There was a sense in the discussion that no proactive remedies were suggested and the frequent reactions to economic events were wholly unconvincing.
When growth rate was steady, credit was claimed for national policy and leadership; when it began faltering, the excuse was ‘the global phenomenon’.
In this scenario, the participants unanimously agreed that a unique opportunity had come the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh’s way to remedy the weakness in the economy and to face the electorate in 2014 with some measure of dignity and pride.
The CEOs generally agreed that the Indian growth story is intact. They cited, however, the total lack of a Mentor with adequate authority to dictate policy changes and, to see them through.
This, the CEOs felt, needed political sagacity and academic foresight, which Dr Manmohan Singh had displayed in some instances. “If he decides, he can call the shots,” said several of the European CEOs.
I would like to suggest the following to help change international investors’ perception of India. Along with the experts, the Prime Minister should induct some young political talent that can be groomed for future occasions.
The notion that only septuagenarians can manage the national economy should be done away with.
Another suggestion is that the Prime Minister should attend the next Davos Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum with a strong contingent of bureaucrats and ministers.
This will help to set right the downbeat perception with regard to business opportunities in India. It will also send a strong message of trust and confidence to the international community of investors and industry. It is time the Prime Minister told the world that ‘India Means Business’.
Also, the Prime Minister needs to take on board the Opposition when it comes to national policy matters.
This is the only way he can restore his lost reputation as eminent economist and purposeful administrator and let international investors fully realise the nation's potential.
Time is running out, the Prime Minister has just a couple of years to do this.
(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany. firstname.lastname@example.org)