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Building Diplomatic Gateways into India

Indian Ministry of External Affairs co-hosted a major conference to formulate comprehensive foreign economic policies

Rajiv Bhatia
Publish Date: Jul 8 2016 6:00PM | Updated Date: Jul 9 2016 1:22PM

Building Diplomatic Gateways into India

 Knowledge should drive policy and a multi-disciplinary knowledge, based on up-to-date and non-partisan research, could help in policy formulation immensely. As repositories of such knowledge, think tanks specialising in foreign policy have a special relevance to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The latter’s bold and imaginative initiative to support four international conferences under its ‘Dialogue’ series in 2016 has attracted considerable interest and appreciation.

Preceded by the Raisina Dialogue held in New Delhi in March, the Gateway of India Dialogue (GoID) – the second in the series – was arranged in Mumbai on 13-14 June. MEA and Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations were the co-hosts. The choice both of the venue and Gateway House was important. 
The latest conference had the theme – ‘Where Geopolitics meets Business.’ The idea was to debate the linkage between foreign policy, needs and new directions of Indian economy, and perspectives of India Inc. at a time of complex transition. By gathering together reputed scholars, experts, business leaders and top policymakers from India and abroad, a rare opportunity for exchange of views and knowledge-sharing was created in a city that is well known as the country’s commercial and financial capital. 
As the principal organiser of the Dialogue, Gateway House, an independent think tank established in 2009, fulfilled once again its role as ‘the bridge between business and foreign  policy’ and as an instrument to give India a voice in global economic affairs. 
The presence of three ministers of the Modi government on 14 June and the opening addresses by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign  Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, on the first day underlined the significance  of GoID as ‘a landmark event.’
In an official press release, MEA stated that the international geo-economic conference aimed to promote ‘the global dialogue on the alignment of economic and strategic objectives.’ Its endeavour was to highlight the role of economic diplomacy and corporate engagement in pursuit of national interests. Over 100 experts from around 20 countries participated.
What did the conference achieve? As a regular participant in numerous deliberations of India’s strategic community since 2010 in various capacities I felt that an event like this lent a clear focus to the business side of diplomacy and as an obvious fall-out underlines the need for domestic development of infrastructure and energy security.
Business of diplomacy 
In a thought-provoking statement, the foreign secretary began with the assumption that the connection between business and diplomacy was ‘self-evident.’ It has been so throughout history. His argument, therefore, was that the centrality of business to the formulation of strategy was increasing perceptibly. 
He pointed out that India’s experience in aligning business and strategic goals was quite similar to the experiences of East Asian countries. Economic development needed a package comprising ‘capital, resources, technology, capabilities and best practices.’ It is expected of the makers and managers of foreign policy to ensure that such a package is available, along with a secure environment in which alone development  can take place. 
For India today, two critical requirements are energy security, and better connectivity through modern infrastructure. While diversifying the sources of conventional energy, the Government is now committed ‘to shift to 40 percent non-fossil power generation capacity by 2030.’ Hence the increased stress on building linkages with  countries like Russia, Iran, UAE, Qatar, Mexico and Saudi Arabia as well as improving the prospects of utilization of nuclear energy. On infrastructure, Jaishankar predicted ‘with some confidence’ that regional connectivity would advance ‘substantially’ in the next few years. 
His essential conclusion was that the quotient of economic diplomacy in India’s diplomacy has gone up. Ensuring market access, responding to investor concerns, contributing to ease of doing business, advancement of flagship programmes and enhancing national branding are all part and parcel of diplomatic work. 
Above all, global business outreach served to widen ‘the horizons of Indian diplomacy.’ He added: ‘A new normal is in the making, one where the business of Indian diplomacy is increasingly business.’ 
Thrust of discussions
Building a case for ‘Innovating for Asian Integration’, Mohandas Pai, Chairman Manipal Group, stressed that, unlike US and Europe, Asia’s economy was set to grow at 5 percent or more annually in the next two decades. Asia should, therefore, look for a new model of integration such as an ‘Asian Common Market.’  Seventy percent of progress towards this goal, he asserted, would be achieved by business itself. 
Governments can play a role in the remaining thirty percent space to facilitate the inevitable march towards integration.
A dissenting view was voiced. Would not geopolitical rivalries and inter-state tensions (such as between US and China, China and Japan, and within West Asia) prevent the fulfillment of this dream? 
The need for realism was noted, but there was much interest in Pai’s vision, articulated in a style associated with Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock. India Inc. expects the Government to manage international politics, lower diplomatic tensions and help in economic growth that integrates Asia stretching from Turkey to Japan. 
The session on ‘The Politics of Global Capital’ proved very popular, with the lion’s attention focused on UK Sinha, Chairman, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). He noted that India had achieved much success in managing financial markets. 
Emerging economies had also secured seats on the high table in a few international financial institutions, but he asserted that the voices of the developing world needed to be heard more. Decision making still rested largely with the developed world that was contributing less and less to world economy. 
He suggested that development markets should cooperate and take care of the requirement of funds and capital of each other. ‘If we can do that’, he observed, ‘we will be changing the face of this earth.’
After this stimulating session, I saw Sinha surrounded by an enthusiastic circle of about 50 media persons, showering him with innumerable questions. This was a vivid indicator of business as the soul of Mumbai. 
Experts from Turkey, China, Japan, Germany, India and Africa discussed facets of strategic financing for effective economic policy as well as mega trade agreements such as RCEP and TPP. Whether these agreements, once in place, would bring ‘fragmentation’ or ‘integration’ of world markets remained debatable, but what emerged was that India needed to prepare itself well for trade and investment diversions which were certain to follow, especially once TPP came into effect. 
Chris Alexander, former Canadian Minister of Immigration and Lant Pritchett of Harvard Kennedy School and author of Let their People come, explored the contours of globalisation of talent and movement of labour.
In one of the most fascinating sessions, top-notch banking experts from overseas unraveled the mysteries of ‘Virtual Finance: inclusive, invisible, impactful.’ Major banks are shrinking, yielding space to non-banking institutions due to relentless technological change and innovation. The debate is underway to determine whether it as ‘disruption’ or ‘transformation.’ A business-dominated audience was spellbound by the extempore oratory, specialised knowledge and candid, fast-paced question-answer session. 
A special panel comprising Vikas Swarup, MEA’s spokesperson and author of Slumdog Millionaire, Kabir Khan, film director and Hugo Weihe, famous art specialist, debated the range and impact of ‘Soft Power, Hard Influence.’ Moderated by Mumbai’s own Shobha De, the session provided a dose of glamour, wit, Bollywood stories and insights about the reach of India’s soft power across the world, particularly in recent years. 
The climax
The climax was reached in the last two sessions billed as ‘Power Dialogue’ and ‘Evening Dialogue.’ Two ministers – Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of State for Petroleum and Gas, and Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs – contributed to political heft. They outlined the challenges respectively in the energy sector and internal security domain in an age when terrorism and cyber crimes dominated media headlines on a daily basis. It emerged that the solution lay in deeper cooperation among all relevant stakeholders and in increasing synergy between the Government and the private sector. 
In the closing address, General (retd.) VK Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, highlighted the successes and achievements of the Modi Government’s foreign policy.  
The marathon 13 hour-long dialogue on 14 June on a wide range of subjects was absorbing. Unlike other conferences, this event saw the cavernous ballroom of Taj Lands End filled to the brim from the beginning till the end. Active audience participation was ensured innovatively. Questions were submitted to the ‘moderator’s envoy’ who put them competently to the panel and elicited responses, without wasting time. In fact, time management was superb, which ensured maximum dialogue and participants’ engagement. 
As the closing dinner hosted by MEA was ending, my glance fell on Manjeet Kripalani and Neelam Deo, the co-founding directors of Gateway House. A glow of fulfillment was visible on their faces. Pioneers in their own right, they sensed that their exciting journey, started seven years back, had reached a memorable landmark. Gateway House as well as Gateway of India Dialogue had arrived with a bang.
-- Rajiv Bhatia is former ambassador and Director-General, Indian Council of World Affairs. He has also been Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House