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'We are a nation of bleeding hearts'

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October 06, 2005 17:43 IST

This is the concluding segment of External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh's 'The Argument of India' lecture, delivered September 23 as the inaugural India Lecture at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

Part I: The argument of India

Pluralism and individualism are two sides of the same coin and they reflect themselves as much in economic activity as they do in the political. They are responsible for a long tradition of entrepreneurship and artisanship on which we have developed a modern economy that is now making itself felt in the global marketplace.

The individualism of India is based on a history of intellectual questioning and challenges to the established system. The description of a million mutinies, even if one were to add zeros to its numbers and subtract from its intensity, speaks of a people in constant ferment.

In more rigid societies, this could have had negative repercussions and probably harsh consequences. But India has been able to successfully harness these internal energies and use them as a force of progress.

What should be particularly noted is that all the social and educational investments that we have made over the last six decades -- from the institutes of technology to agricultural institutions -- are paying off handsomely today.

It is a peculiarity of India that education should emerge as such an effective means of social mobility. By empowering the underclass, education has spread awareness and served as a leveller.

Yet, in combination with other skills, it can provide the impetus for growth and wealth. It has fostered a culture of creativity and innovation that has found expression in our IT industry and other aspects of knowledge-based economy.

At the same time, India's corporate sector is also busy establishing a reputation for high quality of standardised management and competitive business practices. Perhaps it takes something as contradictory as India to reconcile the anarchy of its creative endeavours with the discipline of its commitment to rule bound systems.

Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian has pointed out that the combination of internal pluralism and external receptivity has determined the Indian identity. Even though they are inextricably linked, the latter tends to be overshadowed by the former.

Historically, India has been at the centre of migration of peoples and services. We have long been an importer and exporter of ideas as much as goods. India has always been a sanctuary for those who came out on the wrong side of politics and religion, and remains so to this day. We are a nation of bleeding hearts who wear them on our sleeves.

Professor Sen notes that India has been an integral part of the world in the most interactive sense and that ideological separatism militates against India's own heritage. While they are not without their problems, global processes have enriched India and the world over millennia.

This could well explain why Indians have taken positively to the opening of their economy and its gradual integration with the global one. Reforms over the last fifteen years have unleashed a new promise of growth and brought India into global consciousness.

The path of accelerated growth has raised a host of issues whose successful resolution can inspire others. To begin with, there are multiple challenges of raising large sections of our population out of poverty while addressing the simultaneous demands of a growing middle class for a better quality of life. One need not necessarily be pursued at the expense of the other, and the two may well be linked.

Connectivity, quite literally, can be part of the answer. We have gone through what in India has been known as the transistor revolution, followed by the television one and now by the cellular phone. Their cumulative impact in raising awareness and promoting social change is quite astonishing.

We have seen their role in rising aspirations that constantly raise the benchmarks for our performance. Modernisation of infrastructure and growing energy needs are two significant constraints on our growth currently. They are the equivalent of hardware and software if we are to continue on this path. It is our hope that having placed our faith in an open economy, the world would respond reciprocally, believing that there is much riding on our success. 

The expansion of the Indian economy, and its closer linkages with the global one, also has profound regional repercussions. Within South Asia itself, India with a 7-8 per cent growth rate is clearly the motor of development, and many of its neighbours can reap benefits by taking advantage of expanding opportunities. Obviously, this is a choice that they themselves have to make, and some have done so.

Sri Lanka, which has the strongest economic linkages with India, has been posting impressive growth statistics despite its domestic difficulties. Similarly, Bhutan has emerged as a major energy provider, and the resulting revenues have sharply boosted its per capita income. Nepal derives significant income from its large migrant population in India. Others have the same options if they wish to exercise it, whether in trade, energy or even in infrastructure.

Public sentiment in the region as a whole appears to strongly favour the economic logic, as all of us see an improvement in living standards as the main priority. As a result, the basis for constructive dialogue within the region is widening and new options to longstanding problems emerging, in a way that could not have been anticipated earlier.

In such a situation, national borders may not retain the salience that they currently have in the region. Our future clearly lies in building a vibrant and dynamic economic community. Beyond South Asia, the reforming Indian economy is steadily reaching out to the ASEAN on the east and to the Gulf on the west, restoring historical linkages snapped during the colonial era.

The achievements of an open economy when set against the temper of an open society, foster pride without jingoism. Perhaps, this reflects the tradition of external receptivity mentioned earlier, but in itself, is a point worth noting. 

An India benefiting from global processes will naturally be encouraged to contribute more to the international community. We have a record of doing our best even in the past, when our means were far more limited. Today, India can bear much greater responsibilities. We have historically been major contributors to UN peacekeeping operations and will continue to remain so. During the tsunami last year, we were active as well in extending relief efforts to our neighbouring countries, even while coping with our own problems back home.

India is also emerging as an aid provider to countries in greater need, and we seek to make our human resources training capacity available to others where possible. We are now in the forefront of fashioning responses to trans-national challenges as well in areas like health, terrorism and WMD proliferation. Only recently, we have partnered the US in important initiatives in these areas and have taken the lead in launching the UN Democracy Fund.

Through these activities, India has demonstrated its character as a responsible state. A telling recognition of our record came in July this year when the United States agreed to resume nuclear energy cooperation, taking into account our exemplary non-proliferation record.

In putting forward our candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, we are confident that the world will take into account our international contribution as well as our strong democratic credentials. 

It is apparent that over the next decade, the major countries influencing the direction of global development would include the United States, the EU, Russia, Japan, China and India. No country, however powerful, can shoulder global burdens in their entirety. India's objective is to establish the best of ties with these five key nations, and we have succeeded to considerable measure.

The United States has been an important focus of our efforts at reshaping the diplomatic landscape. Landmark agreements reached in July have the potential to fundamentally redefine our ties. Understandings in the field of energy, technology access, investment and trade, agriculture and health are testimony to a rapidly broadening agenda of cooperation. Our relationship has begun to translate into a larger global partnership.

The EU, like the US, is an important source of trade, technology, and investment. The ambit of our cooperation is steadily expanding and we have strengthened our political understanding. Russia is a traditional friend and remains a major partner in security, defence, and technology. We share a strong interest in combating fundamentalist terrorism.

Our ties with Japan are growing in substance and are particularly relevant to addressing infrastructural challenges. We are committed to ensuring the security of sea lanes as well. China, our largest neighbour, is a nation with whom we have had a history that has not been easy. Both countries have taken a forward-looking approach and our trade, in particular, has expanded dramatically.

With each of these partners, our relationship will grow depending on how they contribute to peace and stability in South Asia, respond to India's core concerns, and meet our larger aspirations. 

An inter-dependent world requires a more consensual decision-making process. We can arrive at cooperative management only if there is an agreement on fundamentals. Learning from each other and exchanging best practices can be rewarding for all of us. India's record and experience allows it to make a significant contribution to this debate. We represent the importance of choice. Our pursuit of development has not been at the cost of human freedoms.

India exists because of its moderation and preference for the middle path. We are a society at different levels simultaneously, and probably confusing to those comfortable in less dimensions. We have our warts but equally, a capability for internal correctives.

Understanding India requires patience, but those who do value our durability and sustainability. India is a constant exercise in introspection that does not always lead to definitive conclusions. For all these reasons and more, our joining the front ranks of global powers will be a harmonious process, greeted not by apprehension but more by warmth and perhaps some curiosity.

The argument for India is that argumentative people, difficult as they are, embody virtues and habits that make the world a better and safer place. 

In his Discovery of India, written from a prison in 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of India in these terms: 'We are citizens of no mean country and we are proud of the land of our birth, of our people, our culture and traditions. That pride should not be for a romanticised past to which we want to cling: nor should it encourage exclusiveness or want of appreciation of other ways than ours.

'It must never allow us to forget our many weaknesses and failings or blunt our longing to be rid of them…It was India's way in the past to welcome and absorb other cultures. That is much more necessary today, for we march to the one world of tomorrow where national cultures will be intermingled with the international culture of the human race. We shall, therefore, seek wisdom and knowledge and friendship and comradeship… Thus, we shall remain true Indians and Asiatics, and become at the same time, good internationalists and world citizens'.

That message is as true today as it was 60 years ago. And these aspirations are in many ways our strongest argument.


K Natwar Singh