India and the US can show us how to build bridges in a fractured world

A man holds the flags of India and the U.S. while people take part in the 35th India Day Parade in New York August 16, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz - GF20000022053

Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Viraj Mehta
Head, Regional Agenda, India and South Asia; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The magic of Davos lies not so much in highlighting the unexpected, but in showcasing the less than apparent. While the headlines are focused on the day-to-day, quieter and more subtle transformations occur every day. Some of these hold huge significance for our collective future.

This year’s Annual Meeting marks the first time in the history of Davos that leaders of both -the world’s largest democracy and of the world’s oldest democracy - will be in attendance. The summit will be bookended by these democracies: by the opening address of Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and by the closing address by the President of United States, Donald Trump. Amongst the both of them, they are elected representatives of nearly 1.7 billion people collectively, and preside over nearly a third of the world economy.

PM Modi comes to Davos at an important time in history. India is re-framing its role in the world, aiming to reclaim its position as a center of global economics and trade. The US on the other end, still the world’s only superpower, is beginning to re-evaluate its engagement in the world in a new light. This dynamic will play itself out in Davos, as no doubt, even though the US remains critically important in world affairs, and indeed for the future well-being of the planet; a united and democratic India, with its continental-sized population, diverse with religions, cultures, classes and races, becomes even more relevant in a fractured world that sometimes appear to struggle with keeping together because of these.

PM Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to arrive in Davos after 20 years. In these 20 years, India has changed in ways not earlier imaginable. India has emerged as one of the world’s largest economies, whose technology-led growth has had a ripple effect on the economies of many countries around the world, creating new aspirations, laying the basis for new industries, providing the raw material for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and lifting millions out of poverty.

President Trump arrives as the first US President in nearly 20 years as well. During these 20 years, the US, through its hubs of innovation that have attracted high-skilled talent from the world has led the technological revolution that has made the world more connected than ever before, laying the foundations of a potentially more transparent, more accountable and more just world. Post the fall of the Berlin Wall, no two countries have played a bigger role in bringing down technological barriers amongst people around the world than India and the US. And they have done this through cooperation, collaboration and through economies that have become more and more enmeshed through ties of commerce, business, entrepreneurship, education and kinship.

Further, more than mere statistics, the two countries, at the level of its diverse populations, represent something important: the desire and ability of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people to take their individual aspirations, varied hopes and myriads of opinions, no matter how different, to the ballot box in their desire for a better future. Citizens of both countries have decided there is no other way, but the democratic process, no matter how chaotic and contested it gets, to reach across fractures and fissures ofcomplex society, and through peaceful means.

Be that as it may, irrespective of their commonalities, in the last twenty years, the narratives of the US and India individually have also begun to diverge. The latter is an ascendant star on the world horizon, growing in influence, building new and different alliances and partnerships. India, on the other hand, has actively built economic ties with Asian countries to its East and has recalibrated its cooperation with traditional partners in the West on pragmatic terms, shedding decades of post-colonial legacies. As a testimony to its growing influence in the eastern bloc, India will welcome not one head of state as is customary, but all the heads of state of the ASEAN block in an unprecedented break with protocol on the country’s upcoming Republic Day.

When Prime Minister Modi and President Trump address those gathered in Davos, the world will be listening to what they have to say about the challenges and opportunities in today’s world. Both countries show how to build a bridge in a seemingly fractured world: through intent, patience and interconnectedness, and demonstrate how they are pursuing seemingly different destinies in the same world. The hope placed on the leaders will also be that they tune into a less feted success of our modern times that quietly powers the world’s democratic ideals and the aspirations of billions who live inside and outside these two countries.

What is certain, is that Davos participants will be treated to and left to consider, debate and absorb the implications of the many paradoxes that the new-Old, i.e., India, and the old-New, i.e. the US, present to the future.

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