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An outside view of Modi – by Dr Ashok V Desai

, April 14, 2015, 1 Comments

Modi Merkel MarketExpress-inMost Indians have a fixed view of Modi – generally an extreme one, whether favourable or unfavourable. None of us gives him a second thought: either he is a god fit for a temple, or a devil without horns. It takes a foreigner to think more deeply about him.

One of them is Christoph Hein, an old German with wavy grey hair and a floppy moustache. He was born during the War in Heinzendorf, the village of the Heinzes, in Silesia. When he was a year old, Germany lost the war. The victorious allies handed over Silesia to Poland, which renamed it Slask (pronounced Shlaesk) and Heinzendorf to Jasienica. The Heins lost their home and moved westwards to Bad Dueben in East Germany. Bad, which means a (hot) bath, is a rather spurious title, which Dueben was given only in 1948, although it claims to have been a Bad for a hundred years. A German Bad has sanatoria, mainly for old people, who are bathed, massaged and mollycoddled for a price, nowadays generally paid by the generous German government. But after the War, Dueben was in East Germany, which was communist and would have frowned on such luxuries.

Christoph’s father was a priest, which made him untouchable amongst the communists who ruled East Germany; his father’s bourgeois social background disqualified Christoph for free high school education. So he went to East Berlin; every morning he would get into the train and go to high school in West Berlin. That came to an end when he was 18; East Germany built a wall between East and West Berlin to stop its citizens from escaping to a better life in West Germany, and Christoph’s education came to an end. He had to do something to feed himself; he worked as waiter, bookseller and stage assistant. He went to evening school, finished his matriculation, and went on to study philosophy and logic in Berlin and Leipzig. He tried his hand at acting, and married a film director. He finally settled down to writing, which he calls exercise for the fingers. He has written a couple of dozen books, chiefly novels and plays.

He recently wrote an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine entitled “That was a good roar, Indian lion!” He began by saying that India needed a fresh breeze, and that Prime Minister Modi had opened the window and let the breeze in – or at least announced in thunderous words that he had. Hein traced the origin of the government’s leonine trademark to the four lions of Ashoka, which symbolize strength, courage, pride and confidence. A dragon would have been fine, but it had already been taken by China. Tiger was out because it is the symbol of a number of smaller East Asian countries. And the elephant, which had served India for many years, was no longer appropriate for a country preparing to march forward.
Narendra Modi is on his first trip to the west as Prime Minister.

On his way back, he is going to travel with Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hanover and inaugurate the Hanover fair, where India is partner country this year. Hanover is the birthplace of Friedrich Oscar Emanuel Oertel, born there in 1853. When he was 20, he gave up his German nationality and became British. He came to India and took admission in Thomasson College, which we choose to call Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee these days. After graduating, he worked on railway works for some years. He then took a ship back to Europe in 1887. It sank near Corfu, and he narrowly escaped drowning. He went on to England, where he worked with Richard Phené Spiers, an architect who was then working on a revision of James Fergusson’s 1876 encyclopaedia of ancient Indian architecture. Oertel returned to the public works department of the Northwestern Provinces, and worked there till 1892, when he was sent to Burma. He came back in 1902 and served in Benares from 1903 till 1907. Then he was sent to Lucknow, Cawnpore and finally Assam. It was while he was in Benares that Oertel excavated Sarnath, and uncovered the four lions.

A century after the discovery, the Indian heraldic animal will return to Hanover for its “Make in India” campaign. But this modern lion does not roar, stretch itself or spit fire: it just stands there, its mouth slightly open and its tail hanging down. Its silhouette is full of screws and gears. It waits and watches. Is it going to spring? Is it only going for a stroll? It seems undecided. Therein, says Christoph, lies the problem.

“Make in India” was launched the day after the successful Mars mission and hours before Modi left for America last September. He made a long speech; he was supported by Mukesh Ambani and Azim Premji. India lacks many things – power, water, jobs and toilets. One thing it is not short of is slogans: “Vibrant India, “Team Modi”, “India Shining”, “Incredible India” – they keep coming. The last two were coined by Sunil Vysyaprath of Wieden and Kennedy. So when the new government wanted a new slogan, it turned to Sunil, who had also coined “Made for India” for Nokia. He was feeling a bit lazy, so he came up with “Make in India.” In the meanwhile, Nokia, whose factory had been opened nine years earlier by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, got fed up with the demands of his finance minister and closed shop.
But slogans and advertisements will not solve India’s problem, says Hein.

India is No 142 in the World Bank’s index of the ease of doing business, behind Uzbekistan and just ahead of Gaza strip. China is 50 places ahead of it; Germany is No 13. It takes 27 days to register a business India; in Singapore it takes 2½. Every 30 days, India adds the population of the city of Cologne. Ganges receives 3.6 million tons of waste every day; it cannot be cleaned in four years. Modi underestimates his problems.

He says India has all the three things global enterprises need: democracy, demographic dividend and strong demand. He is reported to have said to Mukesh Ambani: “Do you know that we don’t produce even tear gas? Even our tears come from abroad.” Modi says he is no economist. But his rhetoric makes sense, as does the new hotline which answers investors’ questions within 72 hours. But it is still just scratching the surface. It looks as if opening doors and windows will not suffice; Modi will have to tear down them down to let the fresh winds blow away the cobwebs.

Hein doubts if the world needs another low-wage factory. Raghuram Rajan, governor of Reserve Bank, argued for “Make for India” – manufacturing for the domestic market – which earned him a rebuke. The Modi army came up with another slogan: “Red carpet, no red tape.” His audience in Hanover would love to hear that – and would wait for it to become reality.

Well said, Christoph Hein! I hope that Modi will not only let a fresh breeze in, but also listen to critical advice, from foreigners as well as from his fellow Indians.

–This article appeared first in TelegraphIndia






  • pramodpadhy

    Thanks to Dr. Ashok Desai for the brilliant, yet nostalgic piece on Modi as seen through Christoph Hein. Dr. Desai is right in his candid observation that Modi underestimates his problems.Nevertheless, he has focussed rightly on three things, viz,democracy, demographic dividends  and a strong domestic demand .True,Make in India remains largely a rhetoric with India ranking a lowly 142 nd position in the latest index on the ease of doing business released by the World Bank and it would be a miracle to see India advance its ranking to two digits in the near future. Yet Modi deserves all the kudos for pitching his dreams so high and with a roar loud enough to be heard on the other side of the Atlantic!