|By way of background, the author first visited India in 1970 after having missed a flight from Bangkok to Nepal while in route to Europe. India, at the time, was caught in a time warp of Russian Communist influence though it was officially neutral during the cold war. There was communist symbolic graffiti everywhere while the made-in-India vehicles were hand-cranked like a Model T Ford would have been. The initial reaction was let the Russians have it as Delhi looked like it belonged in a different century as compared to our Bangkok home. However, some twenty years later a close commercial and personal relationship began with this fascinating country which continues to this day.
This year represents the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi - one of the most revered men in the modern world. Barack Obama once picked Gandhi as his dream dinner guest though he did say "It would probably be a very small meal." However, within India, Gandhi has become more of a symbolic figure rather than being particularly relevant though politicians still exploit nostalgia for him for their own personal gains. Nonetheless, how could anyone not respect this most special person with his trademark glasses and clothes made from his homespun cloth. His khadi cloth was made to illustrate an alternative to British imports and control.
Modern critics like Mr. Modi's government go to great lengths to identify with Gandhi despite his disfavor with Hindu nationalism which is promulgated by Mr. Modi's BJP party. Hindu supremacists still do not understand his compassion for the Muslim minority and accepting the creation of Pakistan as a spin-off from India. Despite the fact that Gandhi did stand up for the lower castes, his critics argue that he was too complacent with the system itself. In fact, some Hindu nationalists have built statutes to Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, who murdered Gandhi. Gandhi was an early member of the Indian National Congress. He helped transform the party from an elite debating club to a national force and the competing party with the BJP. Accordingly, each of the two parties seek to identify their party with Gandhi as demonstrated in his images appearing in political parades and gatherings.
In 2019, Modi's Hindu nationalistic BJP and Rahul Gandhi's Congress Party will go head-to-head in the most significant of election in the 71-year history of the country. There is no question that the economy has roared in the past five years of the Modi regime. However, Modi was elected based upon some strong commitments of reductions in unemployment. Leaks of actual unemployment rates indicate that unemployment is triple the rate of five years ago. With India's workforce population of some 500 million, some 30 million cannot find a job.
Despite unemployment issues, the economy has been growing at an annual rate of 7 percent for several years -- among the fastest of any major economy. On the other hand, rapid population growth in India versus an aging population in China will soon cause India to become the largest populated country in the world. Surprisingly, in 1991, India's economy was less than one-fourth of that of Britain. All projections indicate that it will soon surpass that of its former colonial ruler, with or without Brexit.
In the meantime, Mr. Modi will keep working toward the expected May election. His government just announced an approximate $3 billion program of direct payments to India's small farmers over the next two months and $2.6 billion of middle-class tax cuts to strengthen his appeal prior to the election.
With rapid population growth, India is also outpacing China in terms of oil demand providing an influential position for the South Asian country. Clearly, they are scurrying all over the world to procure existing oil and gas reserves to develop and provide a dedicated energy supply back home. Can you imagine Indian laborers working in Siberia? The country of 1.25 billion people imports 80% of its oil which adds a particular need to secure supplies. Traffic illustrates the result of rapid population growth coupled with an improving economy.
It would probably not surprise you that Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. If you happen to have a motto of not breathing air you cannot see, you would be right at home there. Moreover, pollution is not just an urban blight as the farmlands of the Gangetic plain reflect a cover of pollution from the diesel and coal fumes. Over two-thirds of India's urban wastewater goes untreated. The sacred River Ganges is polluted to the extent that it is unfit for bathing or drinking along its 2,500-kilometer length. As illustrated below, the toxic fumes from industrially polluted water also impacts the surrounding air.
From the days of Gandhi, India sought to develop self-sufficiency from Britain and created their own industrial capacity for internal consumption. An interesting twist is that of Royal Enfield motorcycles which originated in 1901 in the British Midlands and evolved to India in the mid-twentieth century. Over the past ten years, sales have skyrocketed with quality and reliability increasing as well. Therefore, Royal Enfield is firmly on the path to access export markets in developing countries as well as appealing to the nostalgia back in the UK. Siddharta Lal, CEO of Eicher Motors, is shown below with a new twin-cylinder bike that he believes will cement Enfield's position as a global brand.
Naresh Chandra, a distinguished Indian diplomat and member of Government, once described an incident to the author that he experienced while serving as the Indian Ambassador to the United States. He and an American colleague were in Seattle in 1999 to attend the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting. The meeting became known as the "Battle of Seattle" due to the chaos and riots of Anti-Globalist demonstrators. Naresh told his colleague, riding in their stranded town car, that it was just like a typical Indian wedding.
Although he may have marginally overstated the similarity, Indian weddings are one of a kind. In fact, the author was invited to the wedding of an Indian colleague's daughter in London but passed only to learn the next day that Elton John personally performed for two hours. Therefore, a wedding of India's super-rich cannot be rivaled by most any other private event. One of the most expensive weddings in history occurred recently when Isha Ambani, daughter of Asia's richest man, married Anand Piramal, the son of a billionaire industrialist. Elaborate wedding costumes, the food of world-famous chefs and opulent palace venues were capped by a private show by Beyonce.
However, it is not just the wealthy but also the emerging middle class that want to demonstrate their status that support the estimated $50 billion wedding industry. Roughly half the gold bought in the country each year is for items used in wedding ceremonies.
One can only imagine what impact the current events of modern India might have on the smile on Gandhi's face. Sadly, economic prosperity need not destroy the surrounding environment though these things tend to come in cycles. Unbridled population growth with increasing unemployment can certainly destabilize the harmony of any society. Therefore, additional industrial developments in India will hopefully follow the path of China to utilize an expanding potential labor force to export goods and services. The call center industry was a soft-product start. Moreover, there are increasing numbers of Indians on the British Airways flight to and from London to the emerging tech center of Austin, Texas with connections to India. Who would have envisioned that possibility a lifetime ago for a student in graduate school at The University of Texas.