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Friday, September 18, 1998

"Big Way" Naidu salvages India's reputation in a small way

Chidanand Rajghatta  
WASHINGTON, SEPT 17: The presentation was slick and engaging. The audience was keen and appreciative. And the end result, judging by the questions of the delegates and the volume of applause, full of promise. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu may have come to the United States to market his state as an investment destination, but in course of a busy Wednesday in Washington, he also pulled by the bootstraps India's business reputation, dented badly because of the nuclear tests and the subsequent sanctions.

A packed audience in the ballroom of a downtown hotel absorbed Naidu's fervid sales pitch as the man dubbed the CEO of India's most assertive state did in America as Americans do. Used all the right jargon, made all the right noises and proselytised to the converted the virtues of economic reforms in a gauche but effective shtick that went off -- holy miracle! -- without a technical hitch that is typical of Indian events.

The slides flowed in sequence, mantras like people are thestockholders and social audit and transparency, rolled off his tongue smoothly, and a general businesslike atmosphere prevailed at a meeting organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry. Naidu told Indian and American businessmen of his hopes of developing his state in a big way. He wanted to build roads, ports and airports in a big way, provide health and education and basic need to the people in a big way, and make Andhra Pradesh an infotech giant -- in a big way.

His repetitious use of the expression big way -- some 60 times in half an hour -- had some in the audience tittering, but clearly it was an index of his ambitious plans for the state. So ambitious that he spoke of developing Hyderabad's planned international airport as a transit stop between Europe and East Asia.

Naidu's passion was transparent, his enthusiasm infectious and his urgency seemed genuine as he laid out the virtues of Andhra Pradesh and India -- speedy reforms, increasing transparency and the intellectual capital, among otherthings. Janet McEllicott was impressed. Director of a Washington-based consortium that is looking to facilitate joint ventures in India, she had heard much about the Andhra Chief Minister and was gee-ed up by the event. What struck McEllicott, who has done business in China, was unlike the centrist structure in the communist country where Beijing called the shots, India seemed more and more federalist. Americans either tend to lionise situations or demonise them. India's case is fit to be lionised, she said.

Power Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam did his bit, twitting the audience by saying India was getting billions of Deutsche Marks, French Francs and Pound Sterling and now we want dollars. Laying out the impressive strides made in power sector reforms he said the states of India were not looking at infrastructure as a commercial activity nor a state activity. India is on the launching pad, ready to take off, Kumaramangalam said.

But as one delegate wryly remarked, India has been on the launching padfor so long that some of the parts are beginning to rust. Arvind Kaul, Business Development Director of Ecotek Corporation had just returned from India having spent three years trying to kick off two power projects in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The project was now stuck with the Central Electricity Authority awaiting even more clearances. Said Kaul of Naidu, ``He's well meaning, but the system is so gridlocked it is difficult to do anything.''

While the usual suspects -- those who have already put money in India and are trying to get things moving -- listened dubiously, there were some fresh faces. Satya Akula, a Telugu NRI, came to the event after hearing the spiel about how well a politician from his home state is doing. I am looking for investment opportunities, not because I am Telugu, but because he seems genuinely committed, Akula, who heads AC Technologies, a Virginia-based software company, said.

But in the end, Naidu's efforts, while doing some good for Andhra Pradesh, may turn out to bemiasmic for India -- like the efforts of many well-meaning leaders before him. Despite ruinous collapse of the economies of South East Asia and other tigers, India's relatively steady performance is still not attracting the kind of attention it deserves. In fact, even as Naidu was speaking, federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was on the Hill testifying on the world economic situation, where he neatly sidestepped a question in this regard. And while the evening news bulletins and editorials were huffing away about the flailing economies of Brazil, South Korea and Thailand, there was nary a mention of New Delhi -- or Naidu. As one official confessed glumly, a country which handles less than one per cent of the world's exports cannot be called a player.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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