By all conventional logic, India should to be an economic superpower. It houses a sixth of the world’s population, its gross national product has just about doubled in a mere eight years, and it has at least eight growth industries that serve to put the country in the driver’s seat of that car that’s about to whiz past the rest of the world with a polite wave.
Perhaps you’ve gotten comfortable with your image of India as a land of either palaces or slums and not much else. But India as an economic force is indeed an emerging star, backed by the world’s largest middle class and its increasingly disposable income. And giving insight on how to tap into this market will be one of the country’s most recognizable — and controversial — political faces.
On Wednesday, August 19, Subramanian Swamy, an economist and former professor at Harvard and current senior policy advisor to India’s parliament, will speak on doing business with his home nation at the Midmarket Institute’s “Opportunity India” dinner, beginning at 6 p.m. at Akbar Restaurant, Edison. Cost: $75. Visit www.midmarket.org.
If anyone knows the heartbeat of India’s economy and the nation’s place in the world market, it’s Swamy. Born in 1939 in Chennai, where his father served as the director of the Central Statistical Institute in Delhi and was a statistical adviser to the Indian government, Swamy earned his bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Delhi and his master’s in statistics from the Indian Statistical Institute. In 1965 he earned his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.
Swamy’s position on the world economic stage began even before he finished Harvard. While studying he worked as an assistant economics affairs officer at the United Nations Secretariat in New York. He joined Harvard’s economics department in 1964 and was a professor at the college until 1996, though he continued teaching in summer sessions until 2011. Concurrently, he served as a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology until 1991.
While at Harvard, Swamy met his wife, Roxna, whom he married in 1966. She holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India. They have two daughters: Gitanjali Swamy, a private equity investment professional, and Suhasini Haider, a strategic and diplomatic affairs editor at The Hindu newspaper in Chennai.
Swamy’s reputation for controversy began early. While an associate professor at Harvard in the mid-1960s he was asked to be a professor at the University of Delhi, only to have the offer revoked before he took it because of his views about India’s nuclear capabilities.
In 1991 he resigned at IIT to become a cabinet minister, though he is still chairman of the School of Communication and Management Studies in Kochi. Swamy’s political career began, somewhat ironically, as a member of the apolitical Sarvodaya movement. However, in the early 1970s Swamy was removed from his position at IIT for a short time because of his liberal economic ideas. These ideas clashed with the prevailing policies of the time with such resonance that then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi referred to Swamy as “Santa Claus with unrealistic ideas.” His ouster from IIT triggered his active political career as a vocal opponent of India’s conservative leaders.
Swamy was elected to India’s parliament in 1974, and then four more times through 1999. He left India during its State of Emergency in the mid-1970s, when there was an arrest warrant out for him. His ability to attend a parliament meeting before fleeing to Michigan cemented his reputation among supporters. He co-founded the Janata Party and was its president from 1990 to 2013.
In 1990 Swamy became a member of the Planning Commission of India and cabinet minister of commerce and law. It was this tenure that led to him crafting the blueprint for economic reforms in India under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar that were carried out by Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. In the mid-1990s Swamy served as chairman of the Commission on Labour Standards and International Trade. He has continued to stir emotions with his positions on the Kashmir and, most recently, with remarks seen by some to diminish Muslims in India.
Economically, Swamy has greatly influenced India’s statehood. He was instrumental in normalizing relations with China, steps which have opened trade and boosted the economies of both nations. He also is considered the original campaigner against “black money,” referring to corruptly gained money stashed abroad by Indian leaders. Today he serves as a senior policy advisor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
So what are some of the prime areas Swamy thinks are ripe for American investment dollars?
Infrastructure. India’s crumbling infrastructure is a major growth sector for the country. According to the Midmarket Institute, India’s power generation systems, roads, and railways are in dire need of investment and repair. Also, drinking water and sanitation need to reach the farthest corners of a country still gripped by pockets of poverty.
Food and health. India’s growth coincides with a boom in farming, biotech, and food processing. With more than a billion mouths to feed, the country is serious about making food abundant and available, and about keeping its citizens healthy. According to the Confederation of Indian Industries, food processing alone is expected to be a $33 billion annual industry by 2024. Meanwhile, India’s biotech industry surpassed $2 billion in 2013, and it’s still growing.
Tech. India’s software and engineering sectors are major factors in the country’s economy and are looking for outside investment and sales. The software sector alone employs 2.5 billion people, while engineering contributes nearly a full third to the country’s exports.
Production. Remember the talk of outsourcing American production jobs, like autos and textiles, to India? Well, those industries are hopping. Indian automakers average $6 million a year per factory and the textile industry is a $55 billion a year enterprise, according to the Ministry of Textiles.
All of these bullish opportunities, however, must be considered with the potential pratfalls Swamy frequently warns about. In a May column in The Hindu, Swamy warned that true economic strength in India must come from more efficient government and ceaseless reform.
“As an economist, the only advice I can give the Modi government is to take some steps that will raise the morale of the consumer and investor,” he wrote. “The good news is that the built-in potential in the economy is easy to tap for revival.”
— Scott Morgan.