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Is Modi Going to Be India's Ronald Reagan?

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Free enterprise war cries don't usually pass muster in India's political scene, but Narendra Modi tweeted "Minimum Government, maximum governance" shortly before taking charge as India's 15th Prime Minister this week. Modi's cabinet has just 45 ministers compared to as many as 70 in previous regimes. This seems like something the conservative side of the Republican Party in the United States would do.

Seconds after he took his oath of office in a ceremony attended by the leaders of most neighboring nations, the new Prime Minister's website went up with a message that included "I am a firm believer in the power of technology and social media to communicate with people across the world." As the "Great Communicator," President Reagan often reached out over the heads of the legislature directly to the electorate. Modi seems to be a master of doing so, using Twitter and Facebook as much as television. The Gipper would have loved Modi's approach.

Modi's agenda focuses on economic development and unlike most Indian politicians, he is not bashful about being seen with the billionaires who can drive such development. India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani attended the swearing-in ceremony, along with his wife Nita and his two sons. His brother, Anil Ambani, India's second richest man was also there along with his wife former film star Tina and his mom, Kokilaben. Telecom king Sunil Mittal of Airtel was there, even though his family has been linked more closely with the Congress party, as was real estate mogul KP Singh's son Rajiv; their company, DLF has been a benefactor to Congress party President Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law, Robert Vadra. One of the biggest investors in Modi's home state of Gujarat, Gautam Adani, who also provided aircraft during the election campaign, was there. Other industrial titans included leaders of the Birla group, the Ruia group, the London-based heads Jet Airways and Hindujas, and assorted Jindals and Munjals.

It is easier to recount who wasn't there among industry bigwigs: Tata Chief Executive Cyrus Mistry, whose family owns the largest chunk of Tata Sons' shares was absent, as was the legendary chairman emeritus, Ratan Tata.

Western media often portrays Modi as a "Hindu nationalist." But by extending an olive branch to Muslim Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and having him attend the swearing-in on Monday, Modi has altered the nature of the dialog. Writing this from Delhi, I am glad I decided not to stay at the Taj Mansingh Hotel where Sharif's delegation was hosted. At the nearby Taj Palace, where I am writing this from, I had the Presidents of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen and Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa for company (along with squads of armed paramilitary commandos of the Delhi Police and the Border Security Force as well as plain clothes intelligence with identity badges).

Back to the theme of small government, insider Arun Jaitley will handle both finance and corporate affairs as a Cabinet Minister, Sushma Swaraj will handle the foreign ministry along with overseas Indian affairs, and former party president Nitin Gadkari will run both highways and shipping. A number of junior ministers (called ministers of state) have been given "independent charge" of major ministries, so they won't report to a senior/cabinet minister. This includes petroleum & natural gas, textiles, power, coal, renewable energy, commerce & industry and science & technology. This kind of streamlining would have been unimaginable for most Indians and in fact would not have been a vote getter in the election campaign.

Political leaders in both the US and India tend to bring their family along for moral support and sometimes for less honorable reasons (remember Jimmy Carter's brother Billy?). No one from Modi's family was at the swearing-in. In fact, only one of Modi's ministers is from his state of Gujarat. Modi is clearly a man on a mission. He is not afraid to be emotional, however, both in displaying his relationship with his octogenarian mom and his tear-filled speech in the central house of Parliament. Again, I am reminded of the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, and the way his 360-degree personality captivated America for his two terms.

As Reagan was to be inaugurated in January 1981, Iran freed the hostages in Tehran. Upon Modi's inauguration, Pakistan released 151 Indian fishermen that were held in jail for maritime transgressions and Sri Lanka did likewise.

Could this be the beginning of a new India? A lot can go wrong in months to come, but the first steps of a Modi administration are nothing short of remarkable. This is good news for trade and relations with the West. America and American businesses should take notice.