1. I am very pleased to join you all today at the inauguration of the Indian Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Quite appropriately, the theme for the day is the prospects of India as a power. Whether an aspiration or work in progress, I am glad to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on that subject.
2. Let me begin by underlining that one aspect of transitioning to a leading power is to build rigorous and competitive think-tanks. They may be a natural corollary of a globalised society. But like much of the change around us, this does not happen by itself. Articulating a contemporary agenda today by going beyond the debates of a less confident era is necessary. After all, an aspiring power must assess new opportunities and challenges and put out its narrative. It must influence global thinking while being well-informed of how it is perceived by others. Balancing argumentation with outcomes is also part of this evolution. For all these reasons and more, the establishment of Carnegie India is a very welcome development. We, in the Ministry of External Affairs, look forward to working with Carnegie India on matters of shared interest.
3. As far as India’s prospects are concerned, the quest towards becoming a leading power rests first and foremost on our success in expanding the economy. In that pursuit, the role of diplomacy in attracting foreign capital, technology and best practices is significant. That was the experience of Japan, the Asian tiger economies and China before us. The record over the last two years has been encouraging. We hope to build further on that. Indeed, you will note how central these issues have become in our engagements abroad, including during high level visits. Similarly, hand-holding investors, disseminating best practices and facilitating business partnerships are all today part of our daily activity at home.
4. But there is more to this than its transactional side. Persuading key partners that it is in their strategic interest that the Indian economy is strengthened, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is one of the core objectives of our current diplomacy. That our economic endeavours have received a positive response abroad, is at least, partly influenced by these larger geo-economic arguments. Focusing diplomacy on domestic development has to be a generational effort if it is to yield serious results. It calls for a change in attitude and skills of our diplomats - which I can affirm is already underway.
5. In the last many months, you would have all become familiar with our broad approaches to foreign policy. Probably, the phrase heard most in that connection is "neighbourhood first”. While this cannot be said often enough, it also apparently needs more elucidation. The term is meant to convey a strong sense of priority, not suggest a problem-free future. In diplomacy, challenges are often in inverse proportion to distance. The point to note is that this articulates a comprehensive vision of our broader neighbourhood that reflects growing capabilities and confidence. It is posited on the belief that whatever our past, the realization of shared prosperity can be our goal. To achieve that, we will not only have to sharply raise levels of cooperation and connectivity, but also bring to bear a new mindset. Where India is concerned, it could itself drive regional cooperation, rather than be driven by it. In fact, we should be pursuing our own goals purposefully, without letting them be overly influenced by the limitations of our partners, or diverted by difficulties of the day.
6. It is this thinking that infused a new energy into the SAARC, visible since the Kathmandu Summit of 2014. The change is equally discernible in the plethora of initiatives coming out of India, whether it is the SAARC satellite, disaster management exercises or the e-knowledge network. When SAARC has worked, we are happy to forge ahead. Where there are difficulties, we are equally open to working plurilaterally or even sub-regionally. The intent is to get the region to be serious about cooperation within.
7. The degree of attention being devoted to our neighbours today is probably unprecedented. It is visible in the frequency of interactions - at every level. And more important, it is yielding results. With Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, it is hard to dispute that the overall atmosphere of our ties are far more cordial. That better chemistry reflects faster execution of projects, expanded exchanges and more ambitious agreed goals. With Myanmar, we have navigated the transition with delicacy and are well poised to engage the incoming Government. Admittedly, in Nepal and Maldives, there have been challenges that arose from their domestic politics. But even here, patience and perseverance are making their impact. Activating partnerships and expanding capabilities in the Indian Ocean has been also central to our quest for security.
8. In Afghanistan, going through a difficult period, our reputation for reliability has only been strengthened by the broadening ambit of bilateral cooperation. Pakistan, of course, is in a category by itself. But given the challenges of that relationship, we have fared well in keeping the focus firmly on the central issue of terrorism, in maintaining an engagement that factors in the complexity of that polity, and in enhancing global understanding of our approach. That said, we also look beyond to a more normal relationship featuring economic cooperation and people to people ties.
9. Not surprisingly, the very concept of a neighbourhood has expanded as we look out at the world with great ambition. The last few months have shown how much closer the Gulf in the west and the Malacca Straits in the east are to us. This is not so much as a geopolitical concept but as a reflection of realities on the ground. An aspiring leading power, at a minimum, needs to expand its global footprint. And we have been very active in that regard. The Africa Summit, a South Pacific Islands conclave, an integrated tour of Central Asia and a comprehensive engagement in the Indian Ocean are some of its manifestations. High level visits are taking place to more countries, sometimes after a gap of decades. It is difficult to win friends and influence people - even on global issues - without steady and continuous engagement. Interestingly, since this Government has come into office, we have had ministerial level visits to about 130 nations, a level of intensity in our engagement that sends its own message.
10. Not coincidentally, our relationship with major power centers has also improved greatly in this period. Cooperation with the United States has deepened virtually across the board, building on strong political, economic and societal convergences. With Russia, significant energy and economic initiatives have imparted new momentum to a time-tested strategic partnership. With the European Union nations, both individually and collectively, changes at home have created fresh opportunities for greater collaboration. With China, the considerable potential of economic cooperation is beginning to get unlocked. Where Japan is concerned, new vistas have opened up that could have a major impact even in the short term. More than the bilateral relationships, our positioning inter-se amongst major powers is better than it has ever been before. Let me also add that longstanding ties with ASEAN have been further consolidated while all the major players in West Asia have been productively engaged. We have reached out to Africa and Latin America at the highest levels and you may expect considerable diplomatic activity there in the near future.
11. If lack of engagement constitutes a limitation, multiple directions of diplomacy are not without their own challenges. The agenda of one particular relationship may be divergent from another. Reaching out to powers in competition with each other is also not easy. There could be apprehensions about being entangled in the game plan of others. Or debates on the nature and extent of our response to competitors. As horizons widen, challenges of addressing such dilemmas and making choices become more complex. This is the case to our east as much as to our west. The world is changing as we speak, with power shifts underway, new ideologies rising and sovereignty being eroded. But simply because it is complicated, we cannot fall back on passivity as a default position. To do that is to condemn ourselves to be perpetual spectators. As Mark Zuckerberg noted, "In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks”. Therefore, assessing and re-assessing where our national interest lies and pursuing it relentlessly is the answer. And it is the scale and scope of how we define that interest that would characterize us.
12. It is said that the hallmark of a serious power is its ability to pursue competing goals at the same time. That overstatement does bring out an underlying reality – of optimally reconciling the pulls and pressures of global politics. Playing the game on a bigger stage and at a higher level does need more engagement, better understanding and bolder policies. Above all, it requires an adaptation to change, a pre-condition to be able to use it to advantage. This process can be unsettling and proponents of the status quo will always make their arguments. Timidity may be presented as caution and inaction as prudence. Every solution could have a problem. But the world is not standing still and neither can India. Whatever the pace and extent of this change, history has lessons for an aspiring power: leverage the dominant, collaborate with the convergent, and manage the competition.
13. An important characteristic of a power that seeks to go beyond a limited agenda is its interest in global issues. In the case of India, for a variety of reasons, this actually features in our foreign policy from the very start. The nature of our influence in international relations has, however, changed in recent years. A dynamic balance has emerged between our national positions and collective endeavours. We have always been strong in multilateral diplomacy and in recent times, worked harder to create positive outcomes on key issues. The COP-21 at Paris is a recent example, not just as an outcome, but also in advocacy of solar energy and energy innovations. There are more, some traditional like peacekeeping operations, others contemporary like SDGs. Forging an international consensus on a difficult issue like terrorism is a test that still awaits us, even if there has been progress in this respect. Interestingly, we have also been more open to regional and functional groupings in different areas, adhoc or more structured. Our reputation naturally grows in moving beyond argumentation to practice. Strides that we have made in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, have had a resonance that is difficult to quantify. Certainly, the operations in Yemen and Nepal – coming a decade after the 2004 tsunami – has increased respect for India as a global citizen.
14. A nation that seeks to stand out must have its distinct branding. That is usually built on its culture and traditions. Taking those onto the international stage has been a broad-based and long-standing effort of many organizations and individuals. Bollywood has made the strongest impact at the popular level. But there are other facets of our global personality - from traditional knowledge and wellness practices to religion, philosophy, arts and crafts. Getting this heritage more deeply into the consciousness of the world is a critical part of enhancing our standing. And the experience of the International Day of Yoga has been truly encouraging. There are equally appealing contemporary facets of our nation, among them our democratic way of life. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the world sees us espousing pluralistic values, often as an exemplar. High growth in a democratic framework, leapfrogging into the digital era, and the quality of our human resources are forging our modern image. The diaspora has been particularly effective in spreading this message.
15. At the end of the day, the transformation of Indian power is a whole-of-the-government exercise, if not a whole-of-the-nation one. Diplomacy only leads the way, being both integrators and enablers. Today, our successes in expanding options abroad – in defence, trade or energy – have created real opportunities to move up to the next level. How well we exploit these opportunities is up to us. There will be complications, uncertainties and even impediments. Above all, there are the compulsions of the growing pace of change. Bernard Shaw said that "Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. Carnegie India can certainly contribute to the why, the how and the when of that process. I look forward to it.