David Miliband's visit to India

The Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to India, which has created quite a stir in India and within the diaspora in the UK, reinforces, at least for me, the need for better inter-cultural understanding from both sides. Yes, he could’ve avoided connecting the recent Mumbai attacks with the bilateral dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir; yes, he could’ve avoided coming across as arrogant and forceful; yes, he could’ve adhered to formal titles when addressing senior ministers in Delhi; and of course, yes, he shouldn’t have visited Rahul Gandhi’s constituency so close to the upcoming general election.

We’ll do well to remember that Indian politics is complex and the subtext of what you say is probably more important that the actual words you finally use, we’ll also benefit if we understand that in most cases, Indian politicians come into the front line after they hit a half century – let’s not forget Manmohan Singh is in his 70s and Mr Advani is in his 80s. With Miliband barely into his 40s, it must come as a huge surprise to the Indians when the “young man” started flexing his muscles.

David’s visit to Pakistan is being hailed a huge success as my sources tell me that he got them to agree to move a lot further than expected on key issues including curtailing their terror infested networks, which is the right place to  flex his muscles. In my opinion, India deserves a little more respect given our alignment of many, many strategic & substantive issues.

Now that the visit is consigned to history, if I were David Miliband, I’d ask myself what I could improve on and work towards that goal. No Foreign Secretary is going to be able to avoid India, so you might as well acknowledge that you may have got your messaging wrong and that future visits and speeches will be planned with an extra helping of intercultural awareness.

Slumdog Millionaire

Whilst I profess that I haven’t caught the ‘must see’ movie of the season, I can’t help but feel that I already know everything about the flick! As with most films that are based on a popular book, I’m sure Danny Boyle’s added a few twists that are from his own imagination and not that of the author – who incidentally is a friend from his London days and shares a great first name with me 🙂

In conversation with those in the know, they tell me that as a result of Danny Boyle never having visited India before he decided to make this film, the cinematography and pictures captured with his small crew is creating quite a stir.

Criticism from one camp of the way he depicts India’s racial tensions right the way through to the manner in which he brings India’s slums into the multiplex’s of the developed world will be forgiven if Slumdog brings home India’s first ever Oscar.

If there’s one thing India is known for is its ability to entertain the masses. I’m looking forward to catching the film next weekend.

It's Christmas… the politics of public holidays

With Christmas and Boxing Day around the corner, I was asked whether India celebrated these holidays. Questions such as: do queue’s appear at petrol stations on Christmas Eve? are the supermarkets gridlocked? do the TV channels beam old classic films like Star Wars into their living rooms, like they do in Britain? Of course, not! India has its own unique way of doing things!

We shouldn’t forget that public holidays are decreed by parliaments in democratic nations and by virtue of this simple fact, politicians are often lobbied to extend their number. Groups of every nature and interest make the case every year that a national holiday would support the promotion of their cause. Luckily, in Britain, our MPs have resisted the call, but the situation in India is wholly different.

As a result of its religious diversity, India celebrates an exceptional number of public holidays, especially if you’re a civil servant. There have been suggestions that the number be curtailed to eight, but political compulsions and votebank politics trump common sense and at times economic progress.

Being a practical person, I’d advise those on vacation to visit India during one of the major holidays to experience the huge difference in the way festivals are celebrated. As a business traveller, you’d be stumped if you didn’t check the public holiday calendar before booking your tickets.

What's going to happen to the India – Pakistan relationship?

More than any other question I have been asked, the central issue that everyone needs to be concerned about is that of the future of the India – Pakistan relationship.

If the mood of the people in Mumbai – those most affected – is anything to go by, we should expect a huge contingent of soldiers to make their way towards the border and eyeball their Pakistani counterparts whilst the international community goes into overdrive to avoid nuclear meltdown. However, the situation today is different to the last time – when the Indian Parliament was attacked.

Different for the following reasons:

1. The Pakistani Government has been quick off the mark to say the right things that may buy them some time. Last time, they also denied their involvement, but they didn’t give the same sense of urgency and importance as they have this time.

2. They fear the consequences of doing nothing. President Elect Obama has already indicated that he wouldn’t have any problems in standing over Pakistant to make sure it delivers on its promise to clamp down on terrorism. He may have made those comments in the context of Afghanistan, but these comments will also apply to these outrageous incidents.

3. India has succesfully managed to shed the much ingrained view that the fortunes of two were linked – the manifestation of this is that now we hardly hear about ‘India – Pakistan’ in one breath, but instead hear about ‘Ch-India’ or ‘India – China’. The successes of India Inc and the huge bank of goodwill that the country has developed is paying huge dividends today. India’s economic might overpowers that of Pakistan by a factor of mllions today and simply put, it is this realisation that strikes fear at the centre of Pakistani decision making.

For these reasons, I believe we will witness a much required and massive rebalancing of power and influence in the region. If there’s one good thing that these attrocities will have done, then this is it.

Is this India's 9/11?

Was invited onto BBC World News and News 24 yesterday & today to help make sense of what’s happening in Mumbai. In response to a question whether Pakistan could be behind this attrocity, I was left with no choice to point out that it wouldn’t be the first time that the left hand fails to speak to the right – in recent history, we know of situations when the Pakistani administration were simply not told what its security and intelligence services were upto.

If Bush can brand Pakistan as being the epicentre of the axis of evil, if Obama during his election campaign can say that he wouldn’t have any issues with launching strikes on Pakistani soil, then the world shouldn’t break ranks with India if it were to exercise its right to protect its citizens. Yesterday, I argued that Pakistani stability was in India’s interest. Today, I go further – Pakistani stability is in the entire international community’s interest.

This could well be India’s 9/11. Let’s hope the world stands with India rather than obstruct its path in helping Pakistan come to grips with the challenges it has domestically.

A White Diwali!

We’ve all heard of it snowing on Christmas, but no one could ever have imagined that we’d have a White Diwali in London this year!

Despite the unusually cold and snowy evening, we’ve had a fantastic few weeks in the run up to the big day. We’ve seen celebrations all over the world. In London, Trafalgar Square was overflowing with people wanting to experience Diwali, temples were packed to the rafters, community halls hosted Diwali parties, and the shops did brisk business, which was a welcome relief in these times.

In India, Diwali is a huge deal. I don’t often state the obvious but unless you visit India during this period, you’ll simply not be able to realise the scale of the festival. India comes to a standstill for five days. Think of Christmas in the West and multiply it 100 times.

Apart from celebrating the return of the Hindu God – Rama to the city of Ayodhya after a period of 14 years in exile in which he defeats the ten headed demon Ravana to recapture his wife – Sita, we also celebrate and worship the Goddess of wealth and prosperity – Lakshmi.

On this day, members of the business community close their previous year’s books of accounts and open the New Year’s accounts by performing a ceremony to worship Goddess Lakshmi, to ask for her blessings for good profits in the forthcoming year.

Those interesed in learning about Indian culture are advised to pick up a copy of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, in which the tales of Hinduism’s two most worshiped incarnations of God are recorded. There are many good versions in English that can be bought on the net.

As is customary during festivals and celebrations, I’ve eaten far too much in the past few days and now need to schedule an extra couple of shifts at the gym!

Happy Diwali and New Year.

American Jobs for American People

The British Government’s commitment to engaging with India can only be described as deep and meaningful. Whether we’re discussing the thorny issue of immigration, collaboration between educational institutions, strategy on counter-terrorism, right through to to the relationship with the Indian diaspora in Britain.

However, its the cool commercialism that hits the headlines on an increasingly frequent basis. With the acquisition of major brands by India’s firms, its no surprise that the day after the government reshuffle, the Department for Business fielded a senior Minister to meet with leading Indian investors in Britain.

At the dinner, Pat McFadden’s grasp of the detail was impressive. He spoke openly and was genuinely interested in learning the challenges that these businesses have in the UK. He seemed committed to providing a fair and transparent environment for businesses to flourish.

Given that our economy is under severe pressure and one in which even the PM suggested was headed for recession, I’m surprised that in the US they’re  making a bad situation even worse by rejecting the benefits of globalisation. Don’t get me wrong, I like Obama and want to see him in the Oval Office, but on this issue, I’m with McCain.

For me, I struggle to understand how the American’s have succeeded for so long, when at every big moment they start making statements like: ‘American jobs for American people’. It seems that interdependence is simply not in the cultural DNA of the US and is a clear example of how the cultural makeup of a country is directly linked to its success or failure.

Foreign Direct Investment in India

The Reserve Bank of India, this week, said that the total amount of FDI in India in the first quarter of this financial year exceeded the TOTAL received in 2005/06, which amounts to $10bn (£5.4bn).

Of the $10bn, a little bit more than $2.2bn was a result of the purchasing of shares by foreign companies in Indian businesses, which shouldn’t come as a surprise with the likes of Tesco and Vodafone showing an interest in India.

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether India can catch up with China, after all the latter nets upto $50bh on average every year. If India continues the explosive growth that these figures show, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t match China. After all, India has over the past few years accrued the following sums:

2005/06 – $10bn

2006/07 – $22bn

2007/08 – $32bn

If the first quarter trend continues, then India is likely to meet, and possibly break, the RBI’s FDI target of $35bn for 2009.

The future of economic reforms in India

Ever since the UPA came into office, they’ve blamed their inability to make progress on various fronts, down to their need to respect ‘coalition dharma’. Take economics and market liberalisation as an example, many influential people including a few Union Ministers have spoken of how the Communists held them back and blocked the reform agenda every step of the way.

Given that the Comrades from West Bengal have shot themselves in the foot by failing to topple the UPA as a result of their withdrawal, it would be fair to assume that all roadblocks (excuses) to market liberalisation have been cleared. No?

Knowing India, I’m sure the answer isn’t that straight forward. Yes, there are some pretty entrenched views on liberalisation in various elite circles in India, but when you go speak to the average joe bloggs, they’d welcome better quality, innovative services and lower prices, and for this reason, I believe that the UPA should go out there and make the case for reform more convincingly.

With electoral fortunes looking bleak for the UPA, what have they got to lose?

Indian Entrepreneurship – Lakshmi Mittal, the trailblazer

Was invited to the Emerging India awards yesterday evening with global icon Lakshmi Mittal in attendance and Trade Ministers from India and the UK -Kamal Nath and John Hutton playing second fiddle to an audience comprising some of India’s best SME’s, who had flown all the way to this prestigious awards ceremony that celebrates India’s talent in nurturing entrepreneurs.

Lakshmi Mittal, in his keynote address, spoke of his challenges when he was first starting out in the steel business. He recollected how the production of his first tonne of steel brought a profound sense of satisfaction that even his 110 million tonne Arcelor Mittal doesn’t match.

In his address, Kamal Nath highlighted: “…with the internet and a Fed-ex account, SME’s are able to compete with some of the world’s biggest companies.” As the promoter of a SME myself, I couldn’t agree more.

India’s banker – KV Kamath, CEO of ICICI Bank paid a tribute to Indian entrepreneurship and highlighted that the number of SME’s applying for an award had gone through the roof. With 20,000 applications made in the first year, this year, a staggering 300,000 Indian SME’s had applied in 10 categories!!

We’ve all heard key statistics that make Indians tick – for example, India has a population of over 1 billion, a middle class bigger than the entire population of America, or more engineering graduates than all European countries put together etc, but the one fact about India that knocks me off my feet everytime is that India is a young country. Simply put, there are more young people in India than China and almost everywhere else.

I’ve posted a blog previously in which I explain that certain traits are built into our DNA. I believe that entrepreneurship is exactly one of those traits that is built into Indian people. I can confidently predict that the trend of Indian entrepreneurs taking on and winning global boardroom battles, like Lakshmi Mittal, has only just begun.