After Muslims and mutton, now Musk for a new Modi jumla?

The impractical timing of Elon Musk's India visit suggests an anxiety in the BJP about its third term at the helm

The last time Elon Musk (left) met India's prime minister Narendra Modi (right), he declared himself "a fan of Modi" (photo courtesy  @VivekSi85847001/X)
The last time Elon Musk (left) met India's prime minister Narendra Modi (right), he declared himself "a fan of Modi" (photo courtesy @VivekSi85847001/X)

AJ Prabal

Why is tech mogul Elon Musk coming to India in the middle of a volatile national election?

His meeting with the Indian prime minister and rumours of an announcement that his companies entering India in a big way suggest a red carpet is being rolled out to boost the image of a beleaguered Indian government struggling against several embarrassing revelations in recent months. Is the BJP hoping for a fresh fillip to its sagging campaign, or looking to divert attention from more immediate electoral issues like unemployment and inflation to more distant glimmers in the future?

The spate of headlines blaring about 100% FDI being allowed in the space sector, promise of US$ 2-3 billion worth of investments, talk of meeting Modi himself and assorted spacetech founders—it all does seem to suggest that, that the government hopes to promise us 'big developments' in space yet again.

If we were to consider the visit in terms of actual groundwork and investment explorations, surely such a consequential visit would be best scheduled after the election, once the new government has settled in? A BJP confident in its third term should have no reason not to defer it to a more practical point in the future. Rather, the insistence on Musk visiting just now seems to betray a certain anxiety around the election.

We can therefore, I believe, expect that the visit will be projected as the tech mogul reposing confidence in the Indian prime minister's return to power for a third term.

Musk’s eagerness to enter the India market is well-known.

When Twitter, now owned by Musk and known as X, entered into litigation with the Indian government in 2022, Musk had criticised the decision as a risky choice jeopardising Twitter’s third-largest market.

Since then, Musk has taken over Twitter and has obliged the Indian government by taking down content it has objected to. Just this week, microblogging site X let it be known that it had taken down political content at the behest of the Indian government, even as it disagrees with the stance—which in all probability is some posturing by Musk to warn the Modi government against taking him for granted.

Yes, Musk is quite likely to use X as leverage to get his own pound of flesh in whatever bargain is being struck.

And he is certainly bargaining hard. Musk has got most of the relaxations that he wanted from India.

Until recently, the cheapest Tesla electric car would have cost Rs 70 lakh in India due to a 100 per cent import duty. That tariff has now been reduced to 15 per cent for those manufacturers who invest US$ 500 million to set up a manufacturing unit in India. As a result, it has been reported, a Tesla electric car imported into India may cost Rs 35 lakh, even as a model manufactured in India specifically for the Indian market could cost Rs 25 lakh—half the cost of some regular luxury cars here!

And then today we have 100 per cent FDI being allowed in the space tech sector. That will surely be welcomed by Musk. His company, SpaceX, is known for offering cheap satellite launches.

The rocket launch ecosystem in India is currently dominated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), also known for offering low-cost—but more frequently successful—launches. It will likely be pushed to become more 'competitive' if Musk enters, of course. How it will impact ISRO, whether foreign companies like SpaceX and competitor Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin will steal away skilled personnel and whether ISRO will be left to languish are questions for which there are no definite answers yet.

Musk is also keen to enter the satellite communication aka 'satcom' market in India via Starlink.

The Indian Telecommunication Act, 2023, provides that satcom spectrum will not be auctioned but will be administratively allocated at the discretion of the government. We have indeed come a long way from the 2G spectrum scandal, when the UPA government was accused of frittering away a valuable and limited national resource cheaply to a favoured few.

Small wonder that Elon Musk at his last meeting with the prime minister declared himself a "fan of Modi". Small wonder that (citizen and professional) journalists, business and political observers are falling over each other to recall Modi's earlier meetings with Musk in the US, including a limp Indian handshake with the juniors.

And so, to sum it all up, Musk is expected to reveal plans to invest $3 billion to build a factory for making affordable electric cars in India; introduce his Starlink into the Indian market and offer satellite-sped internet; and announce his intent for SpaceX to collaborate with Indian startups.

Media reports also suggest that Tesla has signed a strategic deal with Tata Electronics to acquire semiconductor chips for its worldwide operations, 'indicating that Tesla will be interested in building a supply chain in India that goes beyond local revenue-generation'.

To look to the greatness of space or even up to the sky, after all, is to look away from our own and our idols' feet of clay, the dusty trappings of gravity and other matters—inflation, illiteracy and educational inadequacy, pseudoscience and false promises of employment, inequality and hunger and poverty—that might weigh on our minds as we approach the ballot box.

Perhaps Elon Musk's visit is, for entirely practical purposes that have little to do with business, very well-timed indeed.

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