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Keynote address by External Affairs Minister at the Deccan Dialogue

November 16, 2020

1. It gives me great pleasure to join you all at the Third edition of the Deccan Dialogue. Let me begin by congratulating the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad; FICCI, the States Division of the Ministry of External Affairs and our Hyderabad Branch Secretariat for coming together to make this possible.

2. This Dialogue is notable for a number of reasons, perhaps as much for its location, as for its organization and theme. Our objective in having such a gathering in Hyderabad is to drive home the point that foreign policy today extends beyond Delhi. After all, we have already seen that in the transformation of our national politics! A fuller reflection of the diverse stakeholdership on policy making is part of our evolution as a society. Indeed, my experience of holding discussions in different regions has brought home the value of multiple perspectives that they allow us to access. At the very least, they encourage us to transcend the Governmental and bureaucratic ethos in which policy making normally takes place.

3. But just think about this: how much different the world looks from a city, state or region that is deeply involved in the global IT or pharma business? Or when it is strongly linked to exports and services to a proximate region like the Gulf? For that matter, if it is maritime rather than land-locked? Or if it faces the East rather than the West? In fact, in a globalized economy, every region and economic sectoral activity has its own set of priorities abroad. Creating a more comprehensive matrix of these interests actually helps fashion a more rounded and more democratic definition of our own national interest.

4. You could reasonably ask me why this is important. And the answer is that what happens in the world is increasingly vital for India to understand and appreciate. This was always been so and our history has repeatedly demonstrated the costs of neglecting the implications of external developments. But it is even more so today because, in a variety of ways, we live in a much more globalized and inter-dependent world. Now, let me also admit that if there are two terms that are over-used to the point of becoming clichés, it is these two. Yet, they represent a reality that is important for us to dissect accurately.

5. Generally speaking, when we speak of globalization, we refer to their more transactional elements like trade, finance and mobility. Indeed, their aggregates and the regimes that regulate them constitute the primary focus of globalization debates. This, therefore, becomes an argument of which society is more open to the world. Implicit in that exercise is a recognition that there is a choice there. Each nation has the ability to assess its interests, frame its policies and modulate its engagement. But there are the more existential aspects of globalization as well, one where the elements of choice are much less. The three most vivid examples of them today are climate change, terrorism and pandemics. None of them are a choice of an impacted society, yet all of them – as we are currently experiencing – affect us profoundly. A serious discussion on our engagement with the world must, therefore, make a distinction between the two.

6. Now, Few would argue with the assertion that the direction of our development in the last quarter century has been more global, as also more beneficial. There is no doubt that the reform era has made us more connected, more contemporary and more comfortable with the world. They opened up new opportunities, whether it was in trade and investment, or in travel and tourism. No question, today’s India is far more international than the one before. Its embrace of the world has been strongly facilitated by the technologies of the digital era. The globe is not just a marketplace or even a workplace; it is today a source of ideas, inspiration and aspirations.

7. Rural India wants what urban India has and they, in turn, set their benchmarks on global availability. Collectively, our greatest gain has been in more open minds. But there is the practical aspect to it as well. In the modern history of the world, few nations have developed rapidly without accessing resources, technologies and best practices from abroad. The issue, therefore, is not whether we should globalize or not. Indeed, presenting it in that manner is to create false choices. This is not a question of going into the future or the past. It is a debate about what kind of future we envision.

8. An honest self-assessment of our economic performance must begin with the recognition that it was not our karma to see the state of our manufacturing today. Far from being an inevitability, this is the result of policies, preparations, assessments and course corrections; and their lack. The question after 1992 was never of an open or a shut economy. It was one of negotiating an optimal engagement with the world. And success in that regard should not have been determined by GDP growth rate only. It should have equally taken into account the sustainability of the processes we had entered, the employment consequences thereof and the all-round development of our society. We not only failed to develop the deep strengths that a large industrial economy like ours should have; we actually created an employment challenge by becoming over-dependent on imports. And in doing so, we neglected what is my principal message to you today: adequate awareness of the world.

9. In the name of openness, we have allowed subsidized products and unfair production advantages from abroad to prevail. And all the while, this was justified by the mantra of an open and globalized economy. It was quite extraordinary that an economy as attractive as India allowed the framework to be set by others. With the passage of time, our predicament became increasingly serious. The choice was to double down on an approach whose damaging consequences were already apparent; or to have the courage to think through the problem for ourselves. We chose the latter.

10. This is not an issue of just trade or even of economics. As the world of technology applications and global production becomes more integrated, choices today have a much deeper strategic implication. The limited progress we have made and the gap with our real potential puts us in an especially difficult position. As it is, the effect of past trade agreements has been to de-industrialize some sectors. The consequences of future ones would lock us into global commitments, many of them not to our advantage. Those who argue stressing openness and efficiency do not present the full picture. This is equally a world of non-tariff barriers of subsidies and state capitalism. Without exaggeration, what we will be deciding now will determine whether India will become a first class industrial power or not.

11. And that is why, the outlook of Atmanirbhar Bharat is so crucial. This approach, instead of allowing others to decide our future prospects, is a case for building strong national capabilities and deep strengths. It is far from turning our back on the world; in fact, it is to enter the global arena with cards to play, not just to provide a market for others. This is really about seriously building comprehensive national power. Our success in doing so will determine future terms of engagement and our standing with the world.

12. The challenges of existential globalization are no less pressing and call for an equally clear-headed response. When it came to climate change, many of you would be aware that India played a decisive role in creating a consensus at the Paris COP 21. We went beyond our national contribution, leading the initiative for the International Solar Alliance that has now gathered so much traction. Through all the ups and downs of world politics in the last few years, we have never wavered in this commitment. We not only believed this is truly existential; we are also clear that the most vulnerable to climate change must lead the way. And which is why we have now pushed for a Coalition for a Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

13. As regards terrorism, the era of "not my problem” came to an end in 9/11. But, it has still to produce a whole-hearted international collaborative effort. We have, in our immediate neighbourhood, a particularly egregious example of state-sponsored cross-border terrorism. The world is gradually becoming aware of the global nature of international terrorism. Our relentless efforts have kept it in spotlight, bringing out related aspects like terror finance, radicalization and cyber recruitment. The goal remains to reach a comprehensive convention on the subject and we will not rest till that happens. The third example is, of course, the most contemporary concern – that of pandemics. It is clearly the driver of the theme today – of crisis and cooperation. And indeed, one is the question and the other the answer. Allow me to speak briefly on both.

14. I am a member of the Ministerial Group that was charged with monitoring the Covid challenge and coming up with a response. Understandably, it is difficult to sum up the full complexity of the problems we faced. But let me say this: a nation that had no preparedness for such an enormous crisis responded in a way that should give us all confidence in our future. A country where PPEs and ventilators were not made, where N95 masks were assembled in small quantities, where testing kits were not produced – and we should really ask ourselves why not earlier – today not only meets its national needs but helps beyond. If we created 15,466 dedicated facilities with 1.5 million isolation beds, if more than a million are tested daily by 7,000 centres, if Arogya Setu was devised to facilitate contact tracing – then it speaks volumes about our inherent capabilities. Not just that, our social discipline was extraordinary – standing out in comparison with many developed economies. Clearly, this was the influence of leadership and motivation at work. The challenge now is to take the ability to rise to the moment of crisis and transform that into a more routine set of practices and procedures. And I truly believe that the India which will come out from the Covid crisis will do just that.

15. While focussed on all these, we also organized the Vande Bharat Missions to bring Indians back home from distant lands. More than 24 lakh of our people have been repatriated through flights and by land and sea. From Air India to the Indian Navy, we pressed all our resources to achieve this goal. The intention was very simple – today’s India will not leave an Indian abroad in distress. After all, we are in many ways a unique economy that is heavily reliant on mobility and migration. Our credibility depends on the assurance we provide to those abroad who contribute to progress at home. The diaspora has not just been an economic factor; they have helped determine India’s branding in the world. I was just struck yesterday at the range of Deepavali messages that I saw from politicians in different countries on the social media, underlining how much our community today matters to the world.

16. There are many lessons from the Covid experience that we will all be reflecting on in the coming times. The immediate focus is on economic recovery and the figures for September-October have really been encouraging. There is also a greater awareness globally about more resilient supply chains. It is up to us to exploit this sentiment for additional engines of growth by creating better conditions for production. The recent announcement of production-linked incentives for various sectors is significant in that regard. Domestically, there is a clear realization of the need to embark on the next generation of reforms that addresses challenges which were neglected by a narrower vision. The changes we have seen in regard to agriculture, labour and education are notable examples. If there is a big takeaway, it is in the power of digitization, one that could come into play thanks to the achievements of the last six years. We saw that not only in contact tracing but in providing resources and supplies on an unprecedented scale to the most needy during the Corona period. But from my perspective as Foreign Minister, what this crisis really brought out was the importance of international cooperation.

17. Just, Look at the Vande Bharat Mission. It would not have been possible if multiple Governments had not standardized procedures, whether on testing, on quarantine, on movement or on transit protocols. Many – especially in the Gulf – went out of the way to expend their own resources for the welfare of foreigners. And India has reciprocated in full measure. More than one lakh foreign residents were assisted to go back to their home in these difficult times. As demands for medicines – especially Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol – spiked, we stepped up production and supplied 150 countries, more than half at our own cost. Today, the focus has shifted to rapid testing and reliable vaccines, both essential for a return to travel normalcy. And we are at the heart of international and multilateral collaborations in this regard. Prime Minister Modi has committed to the United Nations that we will help make vaccines accessible and affordable to all. And believe me, from the regular conversations that I have with so many counterparts, the world is counting on us to do so.

18. Now, All clouds have their silver lining and we must try to come out of this crisis with a stronger sense of cooperation. If health security is the immediate challenge, the perennial ones cannot be neglected either. In the last few years, India has emerged as the first responder in our immediate vicinity to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations. We have been there, whether it was the Nepal earthquake, the Yemen civil war, the Mozambique cyclone, the Sri Lanka mudslides or the Fiji typhoon. This is taking our peacekeeping tradition to a higher level. Our commitment to maritime security has also been growing, reflecting the changes in the ability of others to contribute. By strengthening maritime domain awareness and monitoring white shipping, we are making the oceans below safer for the entire world.

19. On terrorism, our efforts have contributed to a larger awareness of its different facets. The FATF has become a more important forum and black money is today firmly on the agenda of the G-20. The world no longer sees it as a law and order issue. On connectivity, we have actually shaped the debate on the merits of transparency, market viability, environmental-friendliness and respect for territorial integrity. And in many parts of the world – ranging from Africa to the Caribbean and South Pacific – we have helped to strengthen capabilities, offered training and spread best practices. These traits in India’s foreign policy outlook will only be stronger in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. We have always displayed a strong solidarity with the Global South; this is even more important today.

20. The world now is increasingly multi-polar. Rebalancing has gone beyond its economic facet to assume more strategic proportions. But an architecture with more variables also requires better rules. Instead, we have seen an erosion in multilateralism. If a global health crisis that has had such a destructive economic impact helps create a change in mind-sets, India must steer that in the direction of greater international cooperation. This may not be as easy as it sounds, as current institutions are rigid and vested interests are really strong. In the interim, therefore, we have to look for practical solutions including ad-hoc group of nations willing to cooperate on selected issues. But our day – and that of better global cooperation – will surely come. It took one crisis for the G-7 to eventually give way to the G-20. It may take a few more for reform of structured international organizations, especially the United Nations. The world is not going to carry on with business as usual. The winds of change are blowing again. Those with a more self-centred view of world politics will have to come to terms with the needs of the day.

21. We are entering a different era, at home as much as in the world. It will be a more aspirational time, certainly a more demanding time. But to make that happen, it will also have to be a more self-confident one at home and a more cooperational one abroad. Transforming this crisis into an opportunity for nations to work together on the big issue of our times is really the main challenge for diplomacy today.

Thank you for your attention.

New Delhi
November 16, 2020

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