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Address by External Affairs Minister at the 6th India Ideas Conclave

February 28, 2020

  • Speaker Mohammad Nasheed, Suresh Prabhu ji, Sarbananda Sonowal ji Ram Madhav ji, though he has temporarily left, Shaurya Doval ji, Alok Bansal ji, Dear Friends.
  • Normally a guest accepts a welcome, but today I am in the unusual position as a member of parliament from Gujrat, with a particular attachment to Narmada, to welcome all of you to Kevadia. I am really delighted to see this conference there. I hope you will all keep coming, bring other people with you. Spend some time in Kevadia, see the Statue of Unity, see all the other wonderful things which have come up around it and have really spread the message of Statue of Unity in Kevadia to the rest of India and the world.
  • I am ofcourse delighted to address the 6th India Ideas Conclave on the theme of "New India : Turning to Roots, Rising to Heights”. This conference has established a very enviable reputation in the last few years as a forum to discuss contemporary issues and a presence of so many luminaries on the stage and so much talent before it, testifies to the fact that it has really come up very very well.
  • Now, we certainly live in interesting times and no one who deals with international relations today would complain of predictability. In fact, we have seen so many black swans and grey rhinos that the very habitat has changed beyond recognition. But in that process, it has thrown up some fundamental issues of nationhood, identity and globalization that need to be objectively debated by thinking people. However, these are also the most obvious subjects for polemics and political attacks they obviously don’t contribute to a better understanding. It is, therefore, very helpful that we are considering these matters against the backdrop of a larger canvas of a dialogue of civilizations. By doing so, we are rightly recognizing the importance of tradition, culture and faith as key variables in global affairs. That in itself is an evolution from the more sweeping and less granular, I should honestly say condescending postulates of globalism.
  • The rise of nationalism is one of the defining characteristics of our current era. It has expressed itself in many different forms across various geographies, many with visible democratic validation. Among the more obvious examples are the turn of politics in the United States, the emergence of China on the global scene, the Brexit process, its impact on Europe, and the return of Russia to the arena of great power politics. These may be the more impactful cases from the perspective of geopolitics, but there are many others that testify to a profound political transformation in so many other societies. They range from Japan to Brazil and Turkey to the Philippines, each obviously very different from the other. Yet, they are common in a departure from the earlier consensus. We, in India, consider ourselves unique and rightly so, because our world view is now more global, not less. On key global issues like climate change, radicalization, counter terrorism, connectivity, maritime security, pandemics, our contribution is making a difference. But others may perceive us to be connected to this trend as well. So, it is a fair question to ask what this is all about. And why it has come upon the world so sharply. To answer that accurately, it is essential that we first appreciate that painting all nationalisms with the same brush is not the thinking of nationalists at all. On the contrary, it is the strategy of globalists who seek to simplify the world into an advantageous binary proposition. By doing so, they put very different political phenomena – some assertive, others more reactive and the rest just simply expressive – in the same basket. That makes it much easier to explain. And as we have often discovered,to demonize as well.
  • The reality, of course, is very different. You have societies like the United States whose nationalism is a message against imperial overstretch, as well as globalized economics and liberal migration. The UK, in contrast, is a much more unifocal case of insecurity against mobility. That fear of migration perhaps holds true of some other European states as well. But as we have seen with China or Russia, nationalism need not be defensive. It could constitute a claim for a greater role in global affairs or a revival of influence after years of being under pressure. Faith and identity have been powerful drivers of this phenomenon as well, especially in West Asia. But for large parts of the world, nationalism is a perfectly natural expression of discovering their roots and asserting their independence. It is, in that sense, a tribute to the success of democratization that has taken power beyond the confines of the established elites. And this debate vis-a-vis elitist globalism constitutes one of the most active conversations of our times.
  • Since a significant segment of nationalisms have occurred outside the Western world, there is inevitably a civilizational aspect to this rebalancing. After all, it means the political revival of societies who were victimized for decades if not centuries, by the West. Some of the players who are re-emerging on the global stage have a culture and heritage that naturally help them to project their historical persona well. If, like China, they are driven by a ‘century of humiliation’ that process would be even more full blooded. The more obvious expressions of appearance and language are the first signs of cultural rebalancing. But the real change is also now visible enough for the world to recognize. New institutions, different practices and changed mindsets build on the foundations of a very different economic reality. Whether it is the BRICS, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the International Day of Yoga, these are signs of changing times. The supersession of the G-7 by the G-20 a decade ago underlines this message. But the shift is not just between the West and the rest. The Western world is itself today deeply divided by American nationalism. At a recent conference in fact at Munich, concerns about its reduced salience found expression in the concept of Westlessness. Keeping that in mind, perhaps there is a case today to go beyond the orthodox limits of civilizations to reach new political understandings. A large democratic world exists beyond the West, one that gives democracy and pluralism a more universal appeal. But for that to make itself felt in the current situation, the power of ideas and strength of beliefs need to be stronger than the prejudices of history. Whether such convergences can override entrenched frameworks is still an open question. India holds the key to the answer.
  • An associated debate is one of the future of multilateralism. Over many decades, a complex web of institutions and practices were established that regulate most aspects of human activity. Not surprisingly, these reflected the interests of the dominant West and are therefore affected by the civilizational changes that I have described. But there is also the impact of narrower nationalism of larger powers who do not wish to be constrained by the rules. A view that global institutions and regimes can be gamed to benefit a few has also heightened cynicism. We have seen this on a range of issues, from trade and technology to territoriality and security. But it is not just the conduct of states that has undermined the stability of the global order. Key institutions – especially the United Nations – are visibly anachronistic. Their thinking and decision making are clearly not reflective of modern reality. It is also evident that an overwhelming section of the international community advocates change. The case for reformed multilateralism is not just strong; without it, multilateralism itself may be in jeopardy. It is therefore imperative that we move beyond the habits of the past as well as the vested interests of the few. The challenge when it comes to multilateralism is to identify and accommodate the positive elements of change, without eroding respect for the rules-based order.
  • Much of the disaffection with globalism has to do with the stagnant quality of life in many societies. These were often aggravated by social insecurities, vast income differentials and consequences of technology. But there are other factors at play in different geographies, many of them opposed to change in itself. The status quo is comfortable for the consensus of the day. And that obviously is very much based on the shared world view of ‘people like us’. People like us is not people like us but people like ‘US’. So, when governments and societies depart sharply from what is supposed to be an established norm, their actions are subjected to a vigorous challenge. The paradox thus emerges where liberals often oppose change more than so-called conservatives. We have seen some striking examples of that in our own society in recent times. These are not just on political and security issues, but even on social and development goals. Somehow, a sense of morality is attributed to non-change. In contrast, addressing longstanding governance problems is made to look risky, if not retrograde. Perhaps this audience should appreciate more than others, that many of these examples are more authentically representative of our ethos, traditions and interests.
  • Much of the argumentation in the world today revolves around the orthodoxy of views and the departures therefrom. Like beauty, correctness too is in the eye of the beholder or more accurately, in the mind of the decider. And that is really where the power of globalism is most evident. A variety of mediums and institutions, often with undeclared interests, pass judgements and set standards. These are self appointed arbiterrs of political correctness. Apparently, their judgements are of such high order that they claim superiority over the verdict of democracy and the will of legislatures. Opinions of this kind are often cited in a self-reinforcing manner by others of the same ilk to gain greater credence. And the really good ones do so with amazing claims of impartiality. In that exercise, the strands of Westfullness, globalism, a kind of multilateralism and liberalism are often strongly intertwined. The truth is that everyone – media, think-tanks, self-perceived Ombudsmen – everyone has a dog in the fight. The challenge today is to have the courage to call that out clearly.
  • So where does all of this leave India? For a start, it is today a polity which is demonstrating that the genuine spread of democracy will lead to the discovery of roots, heritage and traditions. Its growing capabilities and influence will clearly shape global rebalancing and determine multipolarity. As a civilizational power now making a comeback on the global stage, it will help create a different global cultural equilibrium. As a post-colonial society, it should and will always stand with the global South. As a political democracy, market economy and pluralistic society, its understanding with the West could define their respective prospects. As an advocate of reformed multilateralism, its ability to impact global institutions will surely influence world affairs. But in all of this and more, India has to demonstrate an Indian Way, one that delivers at home, embraces the world, contributes its fullest and expresses comfortably what its people really are. That the world has much riding on its success in doing so.
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