If the inaugural session by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his British counterpart, Theresa May, was meant to set the stage for the rest of the India-UK Tech Summit, it certainly did. But while there may be a script the organisers on both sides had in mind, it looks like things will go a bit awry. And one is not referring to the confusion over invitations (or the lack of them) that marred the morning.
Shireen Bhan, managing editor, CNBC TV18, had assembled a stellar panel to discuss the first part of 'Technology-driven Businesses, Government & Society: What next for India?'. Her panelists included Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog (a surprise replacement for Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences); Greg Hands, MP, Minister of State for Trade & Investment, UK; Dr Naushad Forbes; president, CII, Sunil Sood, MD, Vodafone India; Dr Swati Piramal, vice chairperson, Piramal Enterprises; Dr Atul Chauhan, chancellor, Amity University and Tim Davie, CEO, BBC Worldwide.
She set the ball rolling with a contentious debate on free trade and the ongoing problem of the visa issue between the two countries. While Greg Hands responded with a diplomatic "We need to remind all our citizens about the importance of trade and free markets", Amitabh Kant was as candid as a double-shot of espresso could be: "Brexit will happen but India should push the opportunities. Free trade in manufacturing must be reciprocated with free trade in skilled manpower. We cannot have selective free trade and the UK must allow meritorious people to come in. UK cannot remain a great country if it doesn't allow the best people in the world to come in."
Expectedly, there was thunderous applause that died down as quickly as it started when Hands said, "We want to remain open and the UK visa regime is among the most competitive in the world. We've introduced a balanced approach (but) we hear the Indian PM today." Clearly, Modi's words had struck home.
Kant continued by bluntly stating that we were faced with "a very paradoxical situation. India has opened up every sector, including defence, and is the most open economy in the world. But the western world is becoming more and more closed. There's no such thing as selective free trade."
Naushad Forbes switched gears to emphasise the need for raising the proportion of R&D: "Indian firms," he said, "need to raise their contribution in R&D from an average 0.3 percent to 1.5 percent (the global average). We should make it easier for talent to move across countries." The theme of visas continued...
When asked about Vodafone India's plans, Sunil Sood, MD, asserted his company's pledge to the country by reiterating how the Indian Government's transformative programmes had unlocked potential. He said, "The Indian Government is far more approachable, transparent and open to dialogue with an increasing emphasis on technology and digitisation... With Rs. 150,000 crore already invested in India by Vodafone, it is deeply committed to the market."
But it was Swati Piramal who chose to break with the format and showed a few slides that included childlike drawings because "innovation, science, tech are fluffy words that don't mean much to people. Connections between people, cities and countries will make us flourish." She went on to mention how Piramal took over a medicine company in Newcastle and now exports to over 100 countries. "Like the Ganga," she added, "which takes the tributaries from the Yamuna to grow stronger, our two countries can grow stronger with each other."
Chauhan of Amity University also spoke of the collaboration between Indian and UK universities.
To the sceptics in the audience (if any), Tim Davie, recalling the revelations by the Prime Ministers, said: "If you don't believe this technology transformation is fundamental, you're in the wrong place. And you can't do it alone. Unless UK and India get cracking together, we're not going to make it." He stayed focused on creative industries and on the need to co-create Intellectual Property and brands together as BBC is doing with India. "Creative industries may be small," he admitted, "but are a powerful catalyst."
Smart cities, startups and the defence sectors were the other areas that the panelists touched upon. In a country where there are over 90,000 startups with a $75 billion valuation, according to Amitabh Kant, there is a need to create an eco-system that rewards both the inventor and the investor.
Hands' revelation that the UK Government has more people in India than any other country, with a huge network available to private companies here, was welcomed. He remained optimistic about collaborations in the urbanisation and defence sectors. The panel ended on the aspect of growing trade relations, which have declined in the last two years, even as investments have grown.
Forbes' comment that India-UK free trade group should do well and that in spite of concerns about immigration, Brexit will provide a level playing field for immigrants from the rest of the world made it seem like that panel had come a full circle.