Saturday, May 17, 2014

India, the World's Largest Democracy. Better Times Ahead? Or April Fool?

INDIA is the largest democracy in the world and one of the most overwhelming countries I have ever seen. When they popped the doors of the jumbo jet, the smell is the first thing that hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a mixture of rotting vegetation and human waste. It never got easier over a series of trips I made "back in the day."

 New Delhi, India: A Cobra snake charmer
 Photo above: That's me, Michael Fjetland, on the left with our British controller on a project in India, about 1980.

The people were friendly, but the environment was nothing like I'd ever seen--children coming up to the taxi at stop lights with parts of their limbs missing. I later find out some were intentionally mutilated like that to improve their prospects of earning a living as a city beggar.

With the election of Mr. Modi, who has a checkered past, we'll see if that changes.

I first went to India in 1979 as a young legal negotiator for a Texas Fortune 500 company, back when tax rates were 70%! Getting a deal approved was a nightmare. It required negotiating first with an Indian party, and again with the federal government. If you gave too much away during the first negotiation and had nothing left to give during the second round, your project would not be approved. I saw major American law firms fall into this trap because they didn't know the "unwritten" rules of India.

The title of my book "Better Times Ahead April Fool" comes from a sign I once saw in India at 2 a.m. during a taxi ride from one of the first class hotels in Bombay (now Mumbai) to the airport. In the middle of dark streets and unpainted buildings, a white plastic sign stood out as we flashed by. In red and blue letters it read at the top: BETTER TIMES AHEAD. Below in blue it said: APRIL FOOL

That became the theme of my book. Ironically I had arrived on that trip on April 1, April Fool's day, flying high for a Fortune 500 company. Within three years I would be laid off and lose it all.

India today is facing the same question under Mr. Modi: Better Times Ahead? Or April Fool?  We'll have to wait to find out.

The sights and smells of India make a deep impression. It is 80% Hindu and 20% Muslim. Cows are sacred. It has a caste system that says some people are better than others even though all are of the same Hindu faith, with "Brahmins" at the top and "untouchables" at the bottom. It is a land of immense contrasts.

The U.S. is the oldest democracy, so the question is how India and America can plot a future together now that India has elected a new leader whose past included violent Hindu extremism, but also successful economic development according to this article. India has had a stormy relationship with its two neighbors, Pakistan and China, including several border wars and the ongoing dispute over Kashmir.

India's population is over 1.2 BILLION, about the size of China's. India and China share a border and the two countries make up nearly 40% of the world's population. Consider this startling statistic: over 600 million Indians are under the age of 25! That's almost twice the size of the entire United States. And they will be looking for JOBS. Finding jobs for them will require a growth rate of 7%, more than twice what it is currently.

Today in America we have over 2 million high-tech, high paying jobs that remain unfilled because Americans don't have the tech skills required. Chinese and Indians do have workers with those skills. China and India are producing the engineers the U.S. is not.

In the meantime, if you want to see what I saw in India, you know where to look. I included photos showing the immense changes in the last 30 years. One thing Americans will recognize: TRAFFIC.

It was my experiences in these countries that formed the basis of the final chapter: "Agenda for American Greatness." It's a roadmap of how we get back to No. 1 in a changing world with countries like China and India taking over as the top economies in the world. China is now No. 2 and is expected to replace the U.S. as No. 1 by 2020. India is right behind China....

Educate yourself because they aren't going away as their economic strength continues at the same time our Congress has sabotaged our economic future.

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