'Vibrant India': Modi's superlative act to charm investors

By Reuters

Jan 11, 2015 07:02 AM EST

Global statesmen and business titans descend on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state on Sunday to pay homage to the man they are counting on to unleash big-bang reforms and create one of the few bright spots in a troubled world economy.

Big business cheered Modi when he won India's strongest election mandate in 30 years last May, and he has caught its attention with eye-catching initiatives like a 'Make in India' campaign complete with lion logo.

Now, the 64-year-old leader is ramping up the Vibrant Gujarat jamboree he founded as the state's chief minister in 2003, turning it into a pitch to put his nation of 1.25 billion people, most of them poor, firmly on the investment map.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leads a roll call of politicians and bosses converging on Modi's home town of Gandhinagar for the three-day bash. President Barack Obama visits India later this month.

Yet, eight months into Modi's rule, the failure of Asia's third-biggest economy to emerge from its longest growth slowdown in a generation is raising questions about how much substance there is behind Modi's promise of "red carpet, not red tape".

His Make in India drive has drawn comparisons with the manufacturing miracle that turned China into the world's second-largest economy, outstripping India's fourfold since 1980.

Yet skeptics argue that India's competitive strengths are not in making and exporting things, but in areas like information technology and business process outsourcing where it is a world leader.

"India will have to be original, innovative, to get investors interested this time. We have to prove that we're different," said Anil Gupta, professor of public finance at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city.

Vibrant Gujarat, held every two years, has yielded billions of dollars in investment promises but only a fraction of the deals announced has come to fruition.

Now, Modi needs investors to put their money where their mouths are to lift stagnant capital investment that has held back India's growth to 5.3 percent.

That's high by world standards, but short of the 7-8 percent India needs to create work for the one million people who join the workforce every month.

Modi has made headway on making it easier for outsiders to invest more in real estate, insurance and defense, but a rigid labor market and rotten infrastructure are huge deterrents.

India slipped to 142nd out of 189 in the World Bank's latest Doing Business Index. Modi wants India in the top 50.

"Investors want credibility, stability and at the same time flexibility. Right now, India is a bit of an inflexible market," said Kilbinder Dosanjh, a director for Asia at Eurasia Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy.

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