The UK, with a population of around 64 million, had better watch out when it comes to doing business with India.
It risks being outflanked by Sweden, which has a population of only 9.6 million but boasts some of the best known brand names in the world – from Ericsson to Saab, Volvo and IKEA, and not to forget ABBA.
Sweden has just signed several crucial MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding) with India, coinciding with Pranab Mukherjee’s state visit to the country last week.
The importance of the first state visit to Sweden by an Indian president has been recognised as a “landmark” occasion by the royal family, cabinet ministers, captains of industry and leading academic figures.
Even commuters in Stockholm took delays in good humour when morning traffic was held up for 30 minutes to allow the presidential motorcade to pass.
“The President of India!” smiled a taxi driver, who did not mind being stationary at the railway station, not far from the palace and parliament which were festooned with Indian and Swedish flags.
The president had one session with Swedish and Indian business leaders, and then addressed a seminar, “India-Sweden Partnership – Co-creating a brighter future”, attended by 350 decision makers at the Grand Hotel.
In return for transfer of Sweden’s advanced technology, its businesses are being offered access to India’s vast domestic market. The president referred more than once to the three “Ds” of India which makes the country attractive for investors – “Democracy, Demography and Demand”.
He also announced introduction of e-visas for Swedish nationals (even though immigration officers at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport tend to look at Indian passport holders with a certain amount of suspicion).
Sweden’s minister of trade and industry, Mikael Damberg, told the seminar: “Today, more than 150 Swedish companies are established in India. And new Swedish companies enter India every day.”
He gave the example of the Swedish app developer, Truecaller. “India is their number one market – (it has) 350 million users in India.”
He was followed by a man described as “the Ratan Tata of India” – Jacob Wallenberg, the chairman of Investor AB.
“Swedish industries have been present in India for well over a century,” he pointed out. “Ericsson sold its first telephone system in India in 1903, and today India has more Ericsson mps (mobile phones) than any other country.”
He also said: “Today, there is a street called Sweden Road in Pune paved with Swedish multinational brands such as SKF. Sweden is a small country with only about 10 million people.
“We are totally dependent on global open and free markets – (there is) no need to say a market of 1.3 billion aspiring, young and increasingly well educated population is a tempting door to walk through for Swedish business.”
He referred to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s call for more products to be manufactured in India: “The new drive for ‘Make in India’ is also a great match. It will require domestic reforms that somewhat improve India’s business environment and ultimately encourage even more investment.
“India needs a forward-looking trade policy… the conclusion of an EU-India free trade agreement would be a very significant step in the right direction.”
The president’s trip probably finally puts to rest the ghost of Bofors, an advanced gun India bought from Sweden in the 1980s but which became a hugely controversial issue because of alleged kickbacks paid to middlemen to facilitate the deal.
The MoUs signed during his packed two-day visit include renewable energy; the environment, water and waste treatment; health; dealing with such issues as midwifery, abortion, child care and sexual health (the president went to the Karolinska medical institute); science and technology; and defence.
A letter of intent was also signed between India’s Earth System Science Organisation and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat on collaboration in polar and ocean research.
A large number of MoUs were also signed between Swedish and Indian universities. Mukherjee went to Uppsala University, where he gave a lecture, “Tagore and Gandhi: Do they have contemporary relevance for global peace?”
The poet Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first non-European to do so. He was feted when he visited Uppsala in 1921 during his first visit and even spoke in the same magnificent hall as the president. Tagore returned to Sweden in 1926. Last year, the university (founded in 1477) installed Tagore’s bust and also signed an agreement with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for a chair in Indian Studies.
There was speculation last week that direct flights between Sweden and India would make travel easier for busy businessmen and women who are forced to transit via Dubai or Frankfurt.
Direct flights would be welcomed by Anders Grundströmer, who is managing director of Scania India and senior vice-president of the Scania group. The company makes heavy trucks, buses and engines, employs 40,000 people in 100 countries, and established a facility in Bangalore in 2011.
“I live in India – I live in Bangalore, so I am three weeks in Bangalore and one week in Sweden,” he told Eastern Eye. “So for two and-a-half years, I have been commuting between India and Stockholm. It is a not an easy life because my wife is in Stockholm.”
He believes that “for creating bilateral relations between India and Sweden, having the president here, is absolutely crucial. The MoUs signed are a door opener for many companies”.
“What the president said is true,” he went on. “India has the market and Sweden the technology.”