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World leaders look for new ideas at conclave

The India Foundation, a think tank with close ties to the new government, hosted the first India Ideas Conclave in cooperation with the government of Goa.

Cleo Paskal  Goa | 10th Jan 2015

Participants at the India Ideas Conclave: former Prime Minister of Jordan Abdelsalam al-Majali, former Belgian Head of State Anne-Marie Lizin, former Prime Minister of Slovenia Alojz Peterle, India’s Union Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha, for

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's declared vision is "new thinking, new hope". In late December, as part of the search for new ideas, the India Foundation, a think tank with close ties to the new government, hosted the first India Ideas Conclave in cooperation with the government of Goa.

The range of invitees consisted of a wide cross-section of informed input. The speakers included Former Prime Ministers of Bhutan, Jordan, Netherlands, and Slovenia; former heads of state of Belgium and Lithuania; the Sikyong (equivalent of Prime Minister) of the Tibetan Government in Exile; the former secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; and Indian Ministers of External Affairs, Defence, Railways, Finance, and Power.

The approach and the range of ideas discussed give insight into the challenges and promise of this era of change. For example, an oft-repeated message was that many countries in the region want India to play a larger role. This is a now common theme. There is desire regionally, and in some places globally, for engagement with a major power that is not pro-economic policies that are considered damaging to local economies, and are not China.

High-level representatives from both Bhutan and Sri Lanka pointed out that India's economic health was of great importance to the region, and when India's economy grows by 3%, theirs grow by 2%.

Former Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley said that with Modi's arrival a "wind of optimism" was sweeping across the region. He spoke of the inevitability of the leadership role of India in the region, adding, "Large countries only become great countries when they have good relations with smaller neighbours... if even the smallest countries find more security within the EU, why can't South Asia be the same?"

The former Prime Minister then asked the room to imagine a South Asian Commonwealth, with full economic integration, adding, "I will even go so far as to suggest shared regional security arrangements, including for natural calamities". He suggested that the first step be to create and promote cooperation within region, then work on relations with others, including China.

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to India (currently Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Washington) Prasad Kariyawasam echoed the analysis, saying India and Sri Lanka's "destinies are intertwined". Noting that Pakistan would block any proposed South Asia economic union, he proposed following Modi's "let's move at a pace everyone is comfortable with" policy, and begin with an eastern economic union including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Ambassador Kariyawasam also called for more cooperative solutions in maritime and cyber security, and a need for people-centric collective security. He added that "the region remains hostage to colonial interpretation of what divides us, rather than what unites us" and said it was important "to step back to our roots to find traditional strengths of harmony, inclusivity is an ancient part of the South Asian value system". He evoked Sri Lanka's deep Buddhist ties to India, and called for a closer spiritual union.

The cultural and spiritual importance of India in the region was also highlighted by Ambassador O. Nyamdavaa, the former Mongolian Ambassador to Delhi. He chronicled the extensive and ancient ties between Mongolia and India, adding, "India is very important for Mongolia. Indians are our brothers and sisters in dharma." He called for a new role for India in the development of "Buddhism for peace in the world", and proposed India to take a greater role in cultural development in the region.

Delegates from further afield made their own cases for more Indian attention, with European delegates saying that India and Europe should focus on technology transfer and cooperation, US delegates saying now is the time to engage with Washington, and Professor H.K. Chang saying that if China and India can work together, the Asian Century will arise. If they can't, it won't.

Many made an effort to show an understanding of some of India's priorities. Former Slovenian Prime Minister Alojz Peterle said there was no need to innovate dharma, and economic growth could be sustainable if it was dharma based. He also called for a fundamental rethinking of global governance, saying "we can't play the same game with different cards", and calling for a shift from alliances to true partnerships.

Echoing that, German European Member of Parliament Jo Leinen said the World Bank and IMF do not reflect today's world, and certainly not tomorrow's world, and called for UN reform. Former Lithuanian head of state Vytautas Landsbergis quoted Rabindranath Tagore.

On the India delegates' side, there was a wide range of proposals. Former Union Cabinet Minister and Harvard Professor Dr Subramanian Swamy noted that India's high interest rates were primarily benefitting foreigners who were borrowing in the West and lending in India. He proposed interest rates to be maxed at 10%, and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India be sacked. He also called for a national water grid.

The vice chancellor of Delhi University, Professor Dinesh Singh, noted that Indian mathematics was highly advanced 5,000 years ago.

In reference to the need for innovation, Vallabh Bhansali of Enam Securities made a plea to Indian parents: "please let your children join start-ups".

The vice chancellor of Delhi University, Professor Dinesh Singh, noted that Indian mathematics was highly advanced 5,000 years ago. Part of the reason for this, he said, was that (part of what is now) India was a maritime power that needed and encouraged constant technological innovation. India's scientific decline, he said, was tied to "Indian technology unlinking from knowledge ecosystems". He called for a reintegration of Indian technological innovation with societal, political and economic need.

The Indian government ministers listened to all ideas, took notes, took questions, and — speaking as individuals not as government representatives — openly explained their own priorities and constraints. Minister of State for Finance, Jayant Sinha, said, "We need to come up with the next generation of capitalism. The only way is by entrepreneurship and innovation. We can't follow the China model — it is very destructive to the environment, and forced. We need a unique Indian model."

But he was clear that this wasn't going to be a revisiting of the Central planning model. "We've had the state as a player on the field, when in fact it should be the umpire. My job is to get you to do it, I can't do it". And then came an idea: "Maybe what we need is a Grand Challenge on solving key problems for India."

The Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy, Piyush Goyal, was aware of India's need for power. He said, given current low oil prices, he was willing to sign five-year contracts immediately, but no one was willing to offer at a reasonable price. "Getting energy to the people, etc., is nothing extraordinary. It is something government is supposed to do. One would have imagined India would have planned for energy security many years ago. But when I took office, I found we were literally living on a day-to-day basis."

He said he thought he could cease thermal coal imports in 2-3 years, but coking coal would be more of a challenge. He added that he was certainly not closed to nuclear power, but needed to look at lifecycle costs and public sentiment. In the interim, renewables could help rural areas with off-grid and micro-grid solutions so at least people would have lights, phone charge, etc. now.

Minister of Railways, Suresh Prabhu, one of the main drivers behind the Conclave, summed up the impetus for the search for new ideas with: "If something has been de-formed, it should be re-formed".

There is no question that decades of dubious policies and corruption have affected the health of the Indian body politic. The Government of India is looking for ideas, from the deep past, from the neighbours, from new sources, from the soul.

The Conclave was one small part of the ongoing process — many key people weren't there. But the search for ideas continues. It will be difficult, there will be mistakes, and there will be detractors. Many benefited from the way things were. And many are concerned about who will benefit from any change.

Many are watching closely. As the former Prime Minister of Bhutan said at the Conclave, "When India sneezes, her neighbours catch cold". The question is, with the right ideas, will it be possible for India to smile, so her neighbours can laugh?

Cleo Paskal is Adjunct Faculty, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University.

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