India’s soft power is its strongest attribute

It really is no wonder that so many senior figures in the business world hail from the foreign service. After all amongst their jobs as Chairmen, Vice Chairmen and Board Members of large financial institutions and FTSE 100 firms, champagne drinking and hob-nobbing are as much part of their jobs as is holding the executive to account, which is why a career is the FCO is a great way to learn how to work a room.

So at the Foreign Secretary’s Christmas reception this evening, I bumped into Sir Thomas Harris, Vice Chair of Standard Chartered (and former FCO diplomat) and probed him about India; which unsurprisingly, he told me he has been visiting since 1973 – a time when his first trip took him to Calcutta, as it was known then. He spoke with such fondness of India, that I asked him what he felt was India’s biggest attribute – its economic might, her military strength, its nuclear programme, its market potential… to which he echoed what Shashi Tharoor recently said at TED India (http://www.ted.com/talks/shashi_tharoor.html) , that her ‘soft power’ is her biggest and most attractive feature.

Lo and behold, Stephen Green – Chairman of HSBC came along and reiterated what Tom Harris had said, and spoke volumes about his personal affection, beyond economics, for India and the sub-continent.

Just maybe at times, we need to sit back and really reflect on the lure of India. These two gents I spoke with today, had no reason to say what they did, but it does strike me that India’s soft power needs to be given more prominence and airtime, which I hope to do when I speak about my forthcoming book.

This is one of the main reasons I’ve selected Subhash Chandra, Chairman of Zee TV and Kishore Lulla, CEO of Eros Entertainment – as they’ve probably done more to push the Indian agenda internationally than most other conglomerates in India.

Climate Change & India

I attended a briefing organised by the London School of Economics (LSE) with Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Interngovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Director General of TERI that was hosted by Lord Stern, who authored the Stern Review for the British Government.

What I found quite refreshing was the admission by Pachauri about India’s failure to communicate what it’s doing viz climate change & global warming. As a comms professional who’s actually seen some of the great work being done all over India, I can’t comprehend why the Indian Government don’t invest more in projecting what the world needs to know about India.

As an example, he showed a video clip for a civil society campaign that his institute have spearheaded called ‘light a billion lives’ that seeks to promote the use of solar lamps as a means of bringing light into 400million Indian homes. I was astounded to learn that 1.6bn people live in darkness, of which approx 25% live in India.

Dr Pachauri didn’t strike me as someone who sucks up to Indian politico’s but I was astounded to hear from him about how Rajiv Gandhi was one of the first political leaders to understand the challenge caused by global warming and his subsequent desire to establish a ‘planet protection fund’, which each country would channel 0.1% of its GDP into to tackle climate change. He went as far asĀ  suggesting that had Rajiv Gandhi not be assasinated, then perhaps India would be leading the international debate.

Moving on to what India is doing, here are some examples:

  1. As a country with finite resources, and a large underclass – India recycles like no other country. You need to visit India to understand the manner in which discarded items that one refers to as waste, provides a livelihood for others. You can truly see innovation at the grass-roots.
  2. On forests, it seems that India’s been cutting down it’s forests, but in actuality, several Indian states have increased forest cover. Public vigilence has also increased and you can often find groups demonstrating against any evil designs by multinationals or such organisations in rural locations.
  3. Gujarat & Rajasthan are leading the way in harnessing private sector participation in creating wind farms, solar parks etc.

From a macro-policy perspective, the following was offered by Dr Pachauri as examples of what the Indian Government needs to do:

  • Improve public transportation infrastructure. (I’m not sure as to what Dr P would make of Ratan Tata’s dream of increasing car usage by selling his micro car – the Nano).
  • Like the UK, perhaps introduce ONE department that oversees all aspects of climate change policy. At present, policy areas are fragmented as several government departments coordinate policies specificaly for their particular interest.
  • Encourage private sector involvement that would result in commerical sense being injected into discussions, the aim being that some of these ideas become commercially viable – and therefore ripe for investment.

The other speakers at the briefing were: Ms. Minouche Shafik, Permanent Secretary (Private Sector & Infrastructure) at the World Bank; Urjit Patel, President of Business Development at Reliance Industries; Naina Lal Kidwai, Head of India for HSBC.

In his conclusion, Pachauri emphasised “the need to end confrontation between developed and developing nations; and called for a need for more partnerships and further innovation to meet the challenge of providing sustainable livelihoods” – no wonder he won a Nobel!.

With people like Tulsi Tanti and Baba Kalyani who’re running large businesses promoting wind and solar energy, I’m surprised that this debate hasn’t really sparked a discussion with India’s CEOs in the same way as their English counterparts have been engaged in. It’s one of the areas I cover in my forthcoming book on Indian entrepreneurs going global.