Whatever you might say about Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and plenty of people have had a lot to say in the past—not even his critics have called him an uninspiring speaker. He has held spectators at vast election rallies spellbound, even groups of overseas Indians in arenas like Wembley Stadium. He is a big room, big occasion speaker, always able to spark a response in his audience, to dazzle them with the audacity of his vision.

But little of that was on display when Modi took the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. He had a big act to follow; at the same conference last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping caught the attention of the world when he essentially sought to take up the mantle of global leadership that the US, under President Donald Trump, seemed to have carelessly discarded. Xi’s speech was a bravura defence of globalization, not one whit less impressive for the fact that his regime is not precisely the sort of global leader that much of the world would wholeheartedly welcome.

Modi, too, spoke of the fear that the tides of anti-globalization were rising, and that countries were becoming more “self-centered." But he didn’t seem to be offering Indian leadership in response. Certainly, he correctly identified three worldwide problems—climate change, terrorism and anti-globalization—and committed India to the fight against them. But it wasn’t clear what, concretely, India would do to persuade or win over waverers; how it would forge new alliances and blaze new trails to progress.

This was particularly disappointing when, to Indian ears, much else in Modi’s speech struck precisely the right note. Like all Indian leaders before him, he spoke of his country’s diversity, of how democracy was its strength, of how it sought consensus and unity in politics at home and abroad. Modi’s party and his government may consistently have fallen short of these goals, but there is some comfort to knowing that he too acknowledges that they lie at the heart of the Indian project.

India is perfectly placed to be the sort of leader that an authoritarian China can never be, that a fractured Europe is failing to be, and that an inward-focused US is refusing to be: one that pushes forward equitable global trade, that seeks new pathways to controlling climate change, and stitches together multipolar and norm-following approaches to global security. The emphases on democracy and openness in Modi’s speech certainly exemplified how India, in this moment, is different.

But instead of going the whole way toward seeking to lead, Modi instead repeated tired tropes of India’s defensive past diplomacy: condemnation of Pakistan’s silly distinctions between “good" and “bad" Taliban, and reminders that the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions should create more space for India. The old India might bang on about representative institutions, but the India of this uncertain moment surely should seek to create new ones. Why worry about not being represented when you are the only one on the stage? That’s when you seize the initiative. Tell us how the promotion of democracy and a commitment to diversity link up with India’s re-imagination of the global order; tell us how connectivity and trade can be supported without the dangers inherent in Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, which is fuelled by debt and promises; tell us how India’s decades-long effort to give its Muslim citizens a stake in power has lessons for a world struggling with violent political Islamism.

Perhaps the problem is that Modi’s pitch fell between two stools. He wanted to both hard-sell India to his audience and to address the search for global solutions. Had India been growing at over 8%, its economy sound and his management unquestioned, he wouldn’t have felt the need to waste much of his speech on the kind of public-relations blitz that many in the audience would’ve heard before. Although India’s economy may be rebounding—slightly and hesitantly—after a self-inflicted slowdown, Modi’s government is obviously still under-confident, still conscious of the need to push its growth story on the world.

But Davos is more than just any investor conference; and the prime minister could have saved the “invest in India" pitch for the roundtable meetings with executives that he does so well. Davos didn’t want India to sell itself to the world; it needed India to lead. Bloomberg View

Close