I was invited to be part of the business delegation to China of the Government of Gujarat, led by the state Chief Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, from November 8-12. What follows is a first-person account of some of the sights, sounds and learnings from what was for me personally an extraordinary experience.
My involvement with Gujarat over the past 16 months or so has been as a Director on the Board of Gujarat Informatics Ltd (GIL), which is a nodal company for IT procurement and e-governance implementation in the state. During this period, I have got a good overview on some of the IT initiatives in the state. As is known, Gujarat is a pioneer and leader in e-governance in India and has won numerous awards over the years.
While I was delighted to receive the invitation to be part of the delegation, it was also a great honour to be travelling with Mr. Modi and 20 prominent business leaders from Gujarat, along with some senior government officers. This was my first-ever visit as part of an official delegation. I had travelled to China many times before, but I could sense that this one would be unlike before.
The Flight to Beijing
The delegation of 26 assembled at Ahmedabad on Tuesday, Nov 8, and left in a chartered aircraft for Beijing. I spent the time on ground and in the air getting to know people. While travelling, everyone is relaxed and so much more open to talk. A normally reticent me also started conversations with many on the flight.
I also learnt about China from many of my co-passengers. China had now embarked on a 20-year programme to develop the country’s western regions. The past three decades saw development mostly along with the eastern parts. China typically comes out with bold, long-term plans and then stops at nothing to achieve them.
Another interesting conversation was around whether democracy is an enabler or hindrance for development. In this, there were the two contrasts – China with its authoritarian regime, and Gujarat as a democratic set-up within India. My conclusion was that more than anything else, it was the vision and the will of the leadership that made the biggest difference.
We reached Beijing at 8:15 pm local time, and were then escorted to our hotel, Beijing Raffles.
China and Business
Wednesday (Nov 9) started off with a breakfast interaction with the Indian ambassador and the diplomatic team in China. The focus was primarily around business. India’s bilateral trade with China is at about $70 billion, but India imports twice as much as it exports to China, leading to a significant trade deficit.
China had capital and capacity to export to the world, and India needed both. China’s foreign investments were $60 billion last year, and only a small fraction of that were in India. China is also keen to become the ‘cleantech’ king in the world, and is making huge investments in the sector. It is committed to controlling emissions, and had even started rolling blackouts for that purpose. (Contrast that with India – blackouts happen regularly across the country, but that is because we don’t have adequate power generation.)
China believes that Indian media does not portray it fairly, and as such Indian perception of China is not quite right. This is something that could hinder Chinese investment in India.
It’s interesting to note that in China, government officials regularly visit businesses – and ask what their problems were, so they could be fixed. Again, the unstated contrast with India was stark – visits happen in India also, but more often than not, they would be to ask for money.
The first business event kicked off with almost 200 Chinese companies in attendance. They were in-depth presentations on Gujarat and the industry and investment opportunities. Special focus was on the Dholera special investment region that was coming up as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.
Mr. Modi, on his fourth visit to China, spoke in English (with real-time translation in Chinese on the headphones) about Gujarat’s development model and how it had taken a different path from the rest of India. By combining social and economic growth, by focusing on both rural and urban areas, by providing for stability in both politics and policies, Gujarat had created a paradigm shift in good governance and development in India.
One of the interesting elements of the presentations was the extent of localisation the team from Gujarat had done. The presentations had Chinese text, the videos were in Chinese. Business cards handed out by the government team (including Mr. Narendra Modi) were in red, and in Mandarin. These may appear trivial, but as someone said to me, it shows a real seriousness of intent of doing business.
As I talked to some of the locals during breaks, it become clear that they saw in Gujarat and Mr. Modi was a level of seriousness that few Indian politicians had ever demonstrated. This no-nonsense approach was what business wanted.
The focused presentations and the professional approach were very well received. . The programme (as also the entire trip) ran absolutely on time, which was a refreshing change from what I usually encounter in most seminars I have attended in India. To Gujarat’s credit, even the Vibrant Gujarat seminar I had attended in Mumbai a year ago at the Taj started and ended absolutely on time.
As a colleague from the business delegation put it, the tone is set top-down. He had been with Mr. Modi on previous delegations, and every one of them was focused and packed. This is what made the state tick – a marked contrast to many other parts of India. He said that Mr. Modi had done the magic in the same Indian context – the same bureaucrats and government administration, the same laws, and the same processes. It all goes to show, he said, that change is possible in India if the leader is committed – and has the support of the people, of course.
In the afternoon, Mr. Narendra Modi had meetings with people from different levels of the government. I was not part of these meetings. The anecdotal accounts that I got were glowing – of the reception received and the engagement shown. The respect accorded to Mr. Modi was something usually reserved for heads of nations.
For his part, Mr. Modi did not hesitate in bringing up the difficult issues amidst the business talk – China’s role in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, the stapled visas, the maps, and also the detention of 22 diamond traders from Surat in Shenzhen.
Listening to the accounts and talking to some of the more knowledgeable people, it was clear that China was using the meetings with Mr. Modi to send multiple messages – that it viewed Mr. Modi as a leader who may have a bigger national role to play in the future and to the US, that even if Mr. Modi was not welcome there, he was most welcome in China. And at the end of the day, politics and business are intertwined, and it is American businesses that would end up being the losers.
One of the advantages of international trips is the conversations with fellow travellers. After dinner at the Indian ambassador’s residence, when we returned to the hotel, a couple of colleagues invited me for a stroll in the nearby Wangfujing Street. I readily agreed.
That walk brought back memories of my first visit to Beijing almost 8 years ago with my wife, Bhavana, when we had stayed at the Holiday Inn nearby and spent many hours walking down this street, and then onward to Tianamen Square and visiting the Forbidden City. This time around, it was late at night and most shops were closed. It is in these walks and talks that friendships are formed.
These late night conversations happened daily and I gradually got to know most of the people in the delegation. We would talk about politics, India, China – and a variety of other things. For a person like me who is not given to much socialising, this was quite a new experience.
One general point across conversations that stood out was the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi and the wonders that he had worked in Gujarat. Hearing the stories first hand from business people about the speed and transparency of decision-making and the clean administration gave me hope that one day, perhaps the same can be replicated across India and the gap between India and China in infrastructure and development will actually start narrowing.
A Conversation with Mr. Modi
The next day morning (Thursday, Nov 10), we left Beijing for Shanghai. On the flight, Mr. Narendra Modi invited me for a chat. I was pleasantly surprised but ready. I had made a list of points that I wanted to discuss if I got the opportunity to spend time with him.
I spoke about the need for using technology much more in e-governance, with some very specific ideas on what needed to be done. Many of these were drawn from my experience in the state over the past year. Mr. Modi listened attentively, and asked me for a detailed note on the couple of the ideas that could then be discussed with the appropriate officers.
What struck me in the conversation was how attentive he was. He listened carefully, and never once interrupted me. He gave appropriate suggestions which advanced the ideas I was suggesting, and concluded by detailing out what needed to be done next.
For me, this conversation was a revelation. There was such a different between the image of Mr. Modi created by the media and the person I sat next to and talked on the flight. I have met many Indian leaders from both the BJP and Congress in the past years. As I tell friends, with most of them, one can barely speak for a few minutes before they take over the conversation. It is almost as if they have attained supreme wisdom – and their only purpose is to preach, not listen.
That conversation with Mr. Modi will remain etched in my memory. I have written often about the leadership and decisiveness that India needs at the top. As I sat interacting with him, the realisation came that this was the type of person India needed to transform the nation. Of course, successful politicians are known to be charming and charismatic. Combine that with an earthiness and an ability to execute, and you have the winning combination that a country so desperately needs but so rarely gets.
We arrived in Shanghai and went straight to the Shangri-La in Pudong. I skipped the afternoon visit to the deepwater sea port since I had a business meeting of my own. In the evening, there was an interaction with the Indian Association of Shanghai. Mr. Modi spoke in Hindi about Gujarat and how he addressed some of the challenges the state faced.
It was then that Mr. Modi spoke of the model that has helped China and what he has also focused on in Gujarat. He called it the 3S model: Scale, Speed and Skills.
A thought then struck me: development is in the details. The attention Mr. Modi and the state focused on getting every aspect of the value chain right was what made all the difference.
The next day (Friday, November 11), we had two meetings – at the Shanghai Municipal Corporation, followed by a visit to the Shanghai Motors-General Motors auto factory. Gujarat is emerging as a huge auto hub – it will produce 5 million vehicles in the next few years.
As we drove around Shanghai and then to the airport, the sheer scale of development amazed me. . As I told a colleague, India seems a miniature model to what we see in China. A comment made in a discussion has stayed with me: thirty years ago, China was 20 years behind India. Now, India is 20 years behind China.
China has shown that change can be done in a single generation. Our generation in India has to take up the challenge of building the New India – while we still can.
We arrived in Chendgu in the late afternoon on Friday. Chengdu is in Sichuan province in central China. By now, I knew almost everyone on the entourage, so the conversations became varied and lively.
While half of the group accompanied Mr. Modi to the political-business meeting, I was in the other half that had the evening free. We took a cab down to the shopping street, and walked around. I was trying to search for a toy shop to pick up something for my six-and-a-half-year-old son, Abhishek. It was then that I realized how big the language barrier is. Even as China is home to manufacturing most toys in the world, I could not explain to various people on the street that I was looking for a toy shop!
The next morning, our last day in China, there was a business event similar to the one we had in Beijing. This was followed by a Business-to-Business interaction, and from what I gathered from other members in the group, it was an extremely productive one. There was a lot of interest in joint ventures in India’s energy and infrastructure sectors.
A Visit to Huawei
One of the aspects of the visit that had been much publicisied prior to the trip was the meeting with Huawei, one of the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturers, to get them to consider setting up a manufacturing hub in Gujarat. After the presentations were done, Mr. Narendra Modi asked me (as the IT/telecom expert) on my suggestions on how Huawei could work together with the government of Gujarat. I mentioned six opportunities:
- Setting up telepresence centres across the state. The telepresence demo that we got was absolutely impressive. The realism was incredible – it was like we were all in the same room. This is definitely one technology to watch out for.
- Setting up data centre hubs in India, given that land and power are both easily available in Gujarat
- Creating a “Digital Ahmedabad” – starting with a WiFi envelope across the city and then extending to creating a ‘smart’ city
- Creating the foundation for Government in the cloud – with e-governance and m-governance solutions for all citizen-centric services
- Fostering skills development in the state by creating linkages with educational institutions and setting up a university and research for e-Governance, given Gujarat’s leadership in the space
- Showcasing advanced technology solutions through a lab in Gandhinagar to open up minds to future possibilities
The points made were well received, and would be considered by both Huawei and the Gujarat government going ahead.
Two More Visits
The afternoon of our last day saw our longest road journey. We drove to see the earthquake rehabilitation work done about an hour away from Chengdu. The Sichuan region was struck by a huge earthquake in May 2008. Thousands of lives were lost. We visited a village that was near the epicenter, and saw how it has been completely rebuilt.
What was also nice to see was the digital display of the rescue work, housed in a separate building. It paid tribute to the army, youth and citizens who came forward to help in the relief operations.
After that, we visited a Buddhist temple, on what was our last official engagement. Buddhism was a cultural export from India, and the irony is that even as we in India forgot it, many of the East Asian countries adopted it. Gujarat is planning to build the biggest-ever Buddhist temple, and that could help give a good fillip to closer ties at multiple levels between India and China.
We then returned back to the Sheraton Hotel, and prepared to leave for the airport. Our flight took off at 9 pm and reached Ahmedabad at midnight local time.
On the flight back, Mr. Narendra Modi called all of us to the front of the aircraft and asked us our views on the visit, and what could have been done better. We were told that this was something he does on every trip. The novelty of this exercise was as surprising as it was instructive.
The debrief lasted about two hours, as each one of us, by turn, went through our points. Mr. Modi and his A-team of Mr. Maheshwar Sahu, Mr. A. K. Sharma and Mr. Bharat Lal noted all our points. Most of the feedback covered the specific actions that needed to be done as follow-ups, and some bigger measures that had to be done for closer ties between Gujarat and China.
One of the comments made by a colleague who had travelled with Prime Ministers and senior ministers was telling. He said that never before had the business delegation been accorded so much respect as this one. In general, business delegations are treated as ‘second-class citizens’ left to fend for themselves. In this visit, they were treated the same way as the government members and Mr. Modi – and that made a big difference in how the Chinese perceived them. Mr. Modi had involved each one of the delegation members in every aspect of the trip – from the political to the business to the cultural meetings. There had been no hierarchy. This had never been seen or done before in official government and business delegations.
As we made our way to the baggage area, there was a sense of loss with the realisation that our visit and togetherness was drawing to a close. I had formed many new bonds during this visit. When I boarded the flight, the only person I knew to some extent was Mr. Narendra Modi. Now, as we landed, it was like we had all become one large, happy family!
It was the thoughtfulness of the organisers that also made a difference. While all the food everywhere was vegetarian, they also ensured Jain food for me on the flights. Travel and all the other co-ordination was perfect, thanks to the efforts of the Indian consulate members across the cities.
Our late-night walks and conversations, the chat rooms that our buses became, taking in some of the sights of China, driving through without having to worry about traffic signals (there was a police car to clear the way for us everywhere we went), the conversation with Mr. Narendra Modi, the connections with the other members of the delegation – the memories will endure. .
This was my fifth visit to China in the past decade. Each visit has been special in its own way. This one was no different. We have a lot to learn from China. At the same time, we have a lot going for us in India – if we can combine the richness of our civilization with the youthful energy that permeates our population, we can transform India into a developed nation within a generation. But for that, we will have to come together to give ourselves something we have never done – a real leader.
A Real Leader like Mr. Modi
As I watched Mr. Narendra Modi listen patiently to each one of us during the debriefing session on the flight back from Chengdu to Ahmedabad, I started thinking again of the attributes of the leadership that India really needs. A real leader always listens and never stops learning. Those two hours were embodiment of what our country needs, and is unfortunately not getting enough of.
In this context, a quote I read in an article by Thomas Friedman recently is so apt: “At the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.”
My biggest takeaway from this visit was the business-like approach of Mr. Modi to everything he said and did. This was leadership in word and action. In a country where we have been singularly unfortunate in our political leadership through the decades since Independence, we have a shining example in our midst. Unfortunately, many of us, blinded by the one-sided drivel that we have been fed by the media about Mr. Modi in the past decade, refuse to see it. Once again, the Chinese have seen the future. This time around, I hope we will too.