Mon, Feb 27, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Bush visit marks India's arrival as a world `player'

WARMING TIES This week US President George Bush visits the next Asian superpower, a honeypot for US firms, a democracy -- and a rival to China


It takes a while to identify anything Indian inside the Metropolitan Mall in the rich Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. Harrison Ford peers from the cinema posters; Tommy Hilfiger lines up alongside Reebok and Benetton on the shop floor. Only how a cleaner balances flattened cardboard boxes on his head, and the prominent sign at the escalator ("Be careful of your sari while riding the stairs") hint this is not a shopping center in Alabama.

US tastes colonize the food hall. Tex-Mex jostles with hot dog stalls and ice cream parlors selling Smoothies. At Pizza Hut, teenagers buy Indianized versions of the global brand -- Spicy Korma and Tikka Chicken pizzas, sprinkled heavily with green chilies.

Last week, US President George W. Bush was giving some thought to the fondness of young Indians for pizzas. As he prepares for a landmark visit to India -- a trip analysts promise will bring "India firmly and irrevocably on to the world stage as a major player" -- it is these consumers he wants.

In a speech ahead of his visit, he told US listeners: "India's middle class is now estimated at 300 million people. Think about that. That's greater than the entire population of the United States. India's middle class is buying air-conditioners, kitchen appliances and washing machines, and a lot of them from American companies such as GE and Whirlpool."

The Bush administration is acutely aware of India changing. With a growth rate now at 8 percent, its economy has transformed itself in 15 years from that of a Third World nation to a powerful emerging force.

On Wednesday, Bush will fly into New Delhi along with a large contingent of business leaders to secure a new relationship with India. The US wants to tap into its vast market: last year US exports grew by more than 30 percent.

With foreign policy initiatives failing elsewhere, Bush's advisers are reaching out in new directions. As Japan and Europe grow weaker and China stronger, the administration has seen India as a strategic priority. The world's largest democracy is, as Bush's aides chant endlessly, "a country sharing our democratic values and commitment to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society."

At the turn of the century, India's relationship with the US was dominated by sanctions over its 1998 nuclear tests. Interest stirred only very recently, as the effects of economic reforms brought in during the early 1990s began to be felt. For the past three years, investment banks have been forecasting a great economic future for India. Goldman Sachs predicted in 2003 it would be the third most powerful economy by 2032. And the date is creeping forward. A CIA prediction for 2020 says: "Some experts say India could overtake China as the fastest-growing economy in the world."

"Some 20 percent of the world's population under the age of 24 is Indian and 70 percent of our population is under 36. Given these statistics, I am confident our youthful workforce is raring to compete at the global level," said Nandan Nilekani, president of Infosys Technologies, one of India's most powerful software companies.

English-speakers add to the value; there are more people who speak English in India than in the US.

At the World Economic Forum at Davos last month, Indian business seized attention with a US$4 million promotional campaign that flung aside classical dance and ancient monuments and ran a Bollywood soundtrack to persuade global investors that India was the place to be.

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