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Searching for Shangri-La

Shangri-La is believed to be a mystical, harmonious valley, an earthly paradise and a permanently happy land. If there is a Shangri-La, it is not likely to be in India, and that will be a big disappointment for all Indians who take pride in the history, culture, civilisational attributes and traditions of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to the world has attracted widespread attention. Recently, he made an impressive speech at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. It was a well-crafted speech and there are several passages that deserve to be quoted and read.

Diversity at Home

Early in his speech, he said: “Singapore also shows that when nations stand on the side of principles, not behind one power or the other, they earn the respect of the world and a voice in international affairs. And, when they embrace diversity at home, they seek an inclusive world outside.” Diversity at home is embedded in the idea of India. It includes diversity of religion, language, personal law, culture, food, dress etc. Yet, there are powerful groups that oppose or ridicule diversity and insist on uniformity. They claim that all those who inhabit Hindustan are Hindus. They attempt to re-write history and re-claim what they believe is theirs, and seek to impose a uniform personal law, uniform food habits, uniform dress codes and one language. The world’s leaders hear the Prime Minister and applaud his appeal to embrace diversity; and then they read about happenings in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh (Mohammed Akhlaq); Alwar, Rajasthan (Pehlu Khan); Una, Gujarat (Dalit boys); and Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra (Dalit gathering). They shake their heads in disbelief and are confused. And a few days ago, two Muslims were lynched on suspicion of being cattle-lifters (Dullu, district Godda, Jharkhand) and three Dalit boys were beaten and paraded naked for swimming in a well (Vakadi, district Jalgaon, Maharashtra). Whither the diversity that we advocate to the world? Speaking on economic relations, the Prime Minister said: “Coming back to our region. India’s growing engagement is accompanied by deeper economic and defence cooperation. We have more trade agreements in this part of the world than in any other.”

Flunked Export-Import Test

To what intent and purposes did we enter into numerous agreements with the countries of the region? Why has India’s trade with the SAARC countries and the ASEAN countries stagnated? Total trade, in 2013-14 and 2017-18, with SAARC countries was approximately USD 20 billion and USD 26 billion respectively. As a proportion of India’s total trade with all countries, the numbers were 2.6 per cent and 3.4 per cent. In the case of ASEAN countries, the numbers for the two years were approximately USD 74 billion (9.7 per cent) and USD 81 billion (10.5 per cent). There is nothing in the record of the last four years to boast that there has been significant improvement. Talking about India’s economic growth, the Prime Minister said: “We will sustain growth of 7.5 to 8 per cent per year. As our economy grows, our global and regional integration will increase. A nation of over 800 million youth knows that their future will be secured not just by the scale of India’s economy, but also by the depth of global engagement.”

That is absolutely correct, but the government seems to have little understanding of the link between exports, manufacturing and jobs. The true measure of India’s ‘global engagement’ is trade, and the government has flunked that test. In four years, export growth has been negative (from USD 315 billion to USD 303 billion). Imports have grown marginally from USD 450 billion to USD 465 billion. No country has lifted its manufacturing sector without robust export growth. And no country has created non-farm jobs without boosting the manufacturing sector. It is the failure of manufacturing and exports that has led many to suspect the GDP growth numbers that are thrown about. In any event, even the GDP growth rate has slumped from 8.2 per cent in 2015-16 to 6.7 per cent in 2017-18.

Path of Wisdom

And then the Prime Minister uttered carefully chosen words in the context of the global economy, but those words could have described the Indian situation as well:

“And, the future looks less certain. For all our progress, we live on the edge of uncertainty, of unsettled questions and unresolved disputes; contests and claims; and clashing visions and competing models.”
The closing passages of the Prime Minister’s speech and the peroration were worthy of the occasion:

“We are inheritors of Vedanta philosophy that believes in essential oneness of all, and celebrates unity in diversity. Truth is one, the learned speak of it in many ways. That is the foundation of our civilisational ethos — of pluralism, co-existence, openness and dialogue.

“But, there is also a path of wisdom. It summons us to a higher purpose: to rise above a narrow view of our interests and recognise that each of us can serve our interests better when we work together as equals in the larger good of all….”
How true and how appropriate those words will be if they are addressed to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Ram Sena, the Hanuman Sena, the anti-Romeo squads, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the several ministers, parliamentarians and legislators who reject the ‘path of wisdom’.

I urge the Prime Minister to deliver a Shangri-La type speech in India and on the reality of India.

Background Info on IISS Asia Security Summit/ The Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD)

The IISS Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) is a “Track One” inter-governmental security forum held annually by an independent think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) which is attended by defense ministers, permanent heads of ministries and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific states. The forum gets its name from the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore where it has been held since 2002.

The summit serves to cultivate a sense of community among the most important policymakers in the defense and security community in the region. Government delegations have made the best out of the meeting by holding bilateral meetings with other delegations on the sidelines of the conference. While primarily an inter-governmental meeting, the summit is also attended by legislators, academic experts, distinguished journalists and business delegates. The participants in the dialogue include   Australia, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, New  Zealand, Pakistan, China, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, East Timor, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.

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