06/08/2015 12:15 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2016


The world is watching Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's valiant efforts to bring his underdeveloped nation into the 21st century. Without question, India has the potential to be a great power. It will soon boast a larger population than China. But as anyone who has spent time in India can attest, Modi has his work cut out for him.

India has a rich history, but the most conspicuous aspect of India today is vast crowds of humanity living in abject poverty. The majority of the population lives in conditions few Americans would find tolerable. The basics we take for granted -- decent food and housing, air conditioning, medical care, education, ready transportation -- even indoor toilet facilities -- are beyond the reach of the vast majority of Indians.

Predictably, Modi's government wants to expand its manufacturing sector which accounts for only 16 percent of India's economy. Modi wants that to hit 25 percent by 2022. But U.S. manufacturers tell sobering tales of what it's like to set up shop in India -- the ponderous bureaucracy, workers who show up late and an inadequate transportation system. The latter is a real deal killer for modern manufacturing built on the just-in-time philosophy. Global manufacturing is hyper-competitive and India will have a tough time expanding its share.

As for that transportation, India's roads are more or less in perpetual gridlock and the trains are relics from an earlier age. Train travel is subsidized by the government so many people can afford to ride. Those who cannot afford tickets cling to the sides of the trains or ride on top. Thousands are killed each year. The toilets are open holes in the floor.

Not long ago China was in a similar situation but once China decided to cut loose from communism, it was off and running. When a decision is made in China, things get done. Anyone who gets in the way is pushed aside. Things are simply not done that way in India which is a democracy. Ordinary people have rights. They can and do block development projects indefinitely -- as they do in this country.

India's greatest asset is its people many of whom are among the most intelligent, well-educated and ambitious in the world. Unfortunately, these bright lights find little outlet for their creativity in India. More than 27 million of them live abroad, including temporary migrants. Altogether, they send $70 billion a year back to India. And many of the most talented ones -- 3.3 million "Asian Indians" -- are in the U.S. About 150,000 arrive each year and 90 percent of them stay. More than 42 percent have advanced education and their average family income is over $100,000, roughly double the U.S. national average. Two-thirds have high status jobs.

Modi's challenge is to create a situation that makes those ex-patriates want to go back to India. If he can do that, he will be a great man and India will be a great country.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.