They all agreed that India was a land of opportunity, but business leaders speaking at a TiE Atlanta event were split on whether the country would overcome obstacles to seize it.
Overall, the tone was one of tempered optimism, as India seeks a revival of rapid growth and begins a new phase in an ascendant region of the world where its neighbor, China, is growing ever stronger and more assertive.
China, in fact, was mentioned almost as much as India during the early parts of a June 10 meeting aimed at helping TiE members “Know India Now.”
With its newfound pull in the global economy, China is shifting the way India and other developing countries are thinking about the world order, said Jagdish Sheth, a chaired marketing professor at Emory University who has studied the interplay between China, India and the U.S.
The new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRICS Development Bank, both led by China, show how the country is working to upend traditional Western dominance of multilateral institutions like the World Bank., Dr. Sheth said.
As an aside, he added that the U.S. should realize that the 21st century belongs to China and stop clinging to its ideal of global economic supremacy.
“China is the maker of the world’s future, whether the rest of the world likes it or not,“ he said. “Sometime the best victories are in surrender.”
In this environment, India — with its young population and abundance of natural resources — will thrive as a place for U.S. companies to strategically diversify away from China, and foreign investment in manufacturing will follow India’s reforms, Dr. Sheth said.
“India will be made by non-Indians,” he said. “Surprisingly, destiny is with India now.”
Under Narendra Modi, the prime minister elected to great fanfare a year ago, India has become better attuned to its role in the drama playing out in the Pacific, said Marion Creekmore, a former U.S. diplomat in South Asia.
Mr. Modi has impressed on foreign policy, simultaneously cozying up to U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which many have labeled the country’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Modi has also been active in solving disputes with smaller neighbors from Bhutan to Bangladesh, traveling so much that some have jokingly wondered aloud when Mr. Modi will visit India.
Still, whether India’s potential is realized will largely hinge on Mr. Modi’s ability to reform the economy quickly without losing his political backing, a balancing act on which he has performed well so far, according to Mr. Creekmore.
“I think he’s probably moved as fast as the Indian political establishment will allow at this time,” he said. Dr. Sheth agreed, saying India has always had the ingredients for success: “Now we’ve got a leader who has a recipe.”
Cedric Suzman, programs director of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, chimed in with a note of realism, noting that the country ranks No. 142 out of 189 on the World Bank’s Doing Business index and desperately needs reforms to its energy sector and tax system to drive growth.
Executives, on the other hand, talked about finding ways around the problems instead of waiting for regulatory change.
Ambrish Baisiwala, CEO of Portman Holdings, said India in reality is not the worst market and not the best when it comes to dealing with red tape or populism. The real estate developer has had projects scuttled by farmers and activists in the U.S. and China, as well as in India, he said.
A lack of roads, for instance, isn’t going to stop Indians from buying and selling with each other, or from building new homes: Portman, working with partners like TATA, now has 5.4 million square feet of residential property under construction there, and the company sees internal rates of return on projects surpassing the more dominant Chinese market.
“My view is that one has to focus on the opportunities and solve the challenges,” Mr. Baisiwala said.
Mahendra Srivastava, president and CEO of Sortimo North America Inc., said his experience bears that out, albeit in a completely different sector.
In 2005, he worked with partners to create Primacy Industries, an export-oriented candle company, building a factory from the ground to production in six months in the state of Karnataka. Five years later, despite his difficulty finding employees who could read labels at all, much less affix them correctly, the company is now the largest Indian exporter of candles to the U.S. and Europe.
Sid Mookerji, CEO of Software Paradigms International, said India will see a “demographic dividend” as its young, tech-savvy population grows, creating a revolution in retail that will have “transformative power” for the economy, from the major metros to the smallest villages.
“Everyone will want to go to india to sell their merchandise to them,” he said.
That even includes defense contractors: Abhay Paranjape of Lockheed Martin Corp., said India’s defense standards are becoming more congruent with those of the developed world and that even domestically, the country has huge demand for technologies that improve security and disaster preparedness.
Lockheed is working with another branch of Tata to produce components that connect wings to the fuselage of its C130 Super Hercules transport planes, now made in Marietta, Ga.
The company is also helping India drive innovation, including launching a competition for students to create an indigenously developed unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. In three years, they did it, he said.
Companies will have to contend with difficulty finding talent and onerous requirements for domestically produced content, but ultimately working in partnership with India will open new doors for global companies, Mr. Paranjape said.
“It’s not just about selling.”
To learn more about TiE Atlanta, visit http://atlanta.tie.org.