Time for cricket — and a wider focus on India

The cricket world cup starts this weekend: ducks, bouncers, googlies, silly mid-ons, slips, Australian sledging — and match-fixing?

There’s money to be made. Stacks.

Underneath the razz there is still a faint echo of “willow on leather” — endeavour, not business. But only a faint echo: as Roman emperors knew, Lions v Christians (Australia v New Zealand) keeps the plebs dosed.

The guys on the pitch are stars, big as Hollywood and Bollywood.

For India, champion in 2011, this cup is a trial of national pride. After bombing in Australia, can it make the semi-final? One leading journalist I talked to in Delhi last week predicted a New Zealand win. Other interviewees had us in the top four.

India’s cricket predicament mirrors a bigger question: will India also make the top four in geopolitics and geo-economics?

It is not a question micro-Wellington asks much. So perhaps this column should end now.

Except that India is important. Cricket is a stronger when India is on form. The same goes for global affairs. Is India coming off the bench? If so, is that relevant to New Zealand?

Ministers here see India as business. Export education and tourism have grown fast recently. Indian information technology (IT) firms are active here.

Cricket and business will mix at a mid-March “summit” when around 60 Indian corporate heavies — India has some of the world’s heaviest — will be down to keep an eye on the pitch.

Some of the world’s other corporate heavies are renewing their interest. Unilever’s global boss Paul Polson said last week after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he had “seen the mood swing enormously in India in terms of a positive perception”.

Modi got the Gujarat state economy moving when chief minister there. Since becoming Prime Minister eight months ago — with, for the first time in three decades a majority in the lower house — he has been saying business-friendly things.

He is pushing: massive infrastructure investment using Japanese and Chinese finance and construction capacity; tax reform, with a GST, and lower regulatory barriers to development projects plus a skills drive (called “Make in India”); tighter control of subsidies to the poor (and not-so-poor); and a “clean India”: electricity, water and toilets to the half who don’t have such essentials.

The hope is that this will restart business investment by global companies and by local companies which gave up on the previous government and invested offshore. This hope is widely shared. Business confidence has soared.

But business also has doubts.

One is the fundamentalist influence in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which Modi has tolerated. If communal tensions rise, that would be bad for business.

Also India can’t simply replicate China’s trajectory, picking up low-wage manufacturing as China enriches. Fewer workers are needed to make things. India’s poorly managed education system is not generating the soft or hard skills a massive economic upgrade requires.

Optimists look to IT and other services. Pessimists say India is not in the top IT grade now and can’t retain top talent.

So, whereas normally economists would expect the huge youth bulge to yield India a “demographic dividend”, some fear it could be a demographic “bomb” of unemployment.

Near-disastrous air and water pollution adds another constraint.

And can Modi turn development-friendly words into action? Many of the levers are at state level. At the national level an opposition majority in the upper house is blocking reform. By winning state elections the BJP has been expanding its upper house numbers. But a majority is years off and in Delhi territorial elections on Saturday it looked headed for defeat at the time of writing.

Still, Modi is almost sure to get two five-year terms. There is time.

China’s Xi Jinping also has 10 years in the job. The two recognise the need to do business but are mutually wary. Xi went to Delhi in September. Modi goes to Beijing in May.

The United States sees India as a potential balancer, in its own right and in a “quadrilateral” with Japan and Australia. In late January in Delhi Barack Obama extracted from Modi stronger words on the South China sea, where China has bullyingly asserted territorial claims.

But, analysts spoken to last week say, India is not about to join a bloc. Modi’s India focuses on India’s interests, not global balance. In multilateral trade and climate change negotiations that focus has annoyed and frustrated other countries.

The problem: India is too big to leave on the bench. An economically successful, peaceable India could be a powerful force for global good. A failing, wayward or self-obsessed India could be a source of global insecurity.

So New Zealand ministers’ business focus misses a bigger point. A small, open country needs a rules-based international order. As with China, that includes getting to understand India’s history, culture and global positioning. Cricket is just a tiny sliver of that.