NEW DELHI – The world seen from the Raisina Dialogue – India’s leading forum on geopolitics and geoeconomics – is a rough place.
One can promptly infer that from reading the highlights of Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement, delivered on January 16, 2018, at the forum’s inauguration. The Israeli prime minister minced no words in his intent to convey a message of strength and resolve. Netanyahu coined some truly memorable passages, with an emphasis on conveying that “soft power is good, but hard power is better,” since “the weak do not survive.” However logically construed and consistent with Israel’s current foreign policy orientation, these catchphrases were perhaps too crude to be delivered at a diplomatic reunion. From a scholarly, as well as a journalistic, point of view, though, they were too interesting not to be noted and disseminated.
The world seen from the Raisina Dialogue can accommodate some unbearable tensions. After all, we are speaking of an initiative where nationals from neighboring Pakistan are rare birds – for quite obvious reasons. Notwithstanding, the inconvenient topic still emerged here and there: India was publicly charged by an attendee for supposedly sponsoring terrorism in the region of Balochistan – a claim strongly rebutted by U.S. Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus, one of the iconic figures to take part in the conversations. S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign secretary, was fast and categorical in his dismissal of these allegations, treating “Indian state-sponsored terrorism” as a “fantasy.” Myanmar, another hotspot in today’s world, was harshly criticized in the Bangladeshi foreign minister’s address, as the country run by Aung San Suu Kyi fails to tackle the grave humanitarian crisis leading thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.
The world seen from the Raisina Dialogue can also be a place for innovation and futuristic approaches. Buzzwords such as “smart city,” “new warfare,” “bots,” “bytes,” and “Asian century” were frequently heard in the elegant ballrooms hosting debates. Jayant Sinha, India’s minister of civil aviation, went as far as to affirm that the country should move “from farm to franchise” for developmental purposes – that is, from being an exporter of agrarian goods to becoming a services-led economy. According to him, yoga instructors, DJs, and medical doctors must be ever more present in villages, thus generating positive economic spillover effects.
The forum also provides a promising horizon to those genuinely concerned with gender balance in world politics, not just for being a female leadership-friendly environment, but for giving women visibility and a fair representation on panels. Still, I wished for better coverage of LGBTQ politics during the dialogues, but assume it was a deliberate and strategic choice. The organizers may be unwilling to touch on morally sensitive issues, lest relevant players withdraw from the meeting.
The world seen from the Raisina Dialogue is the realm of considered pragmatism. Against the backdrop of the Doklam standoff, China was not seen in a very benevolent light throughout the 50 sessions carried out in India’s capital city. Nonetheless, Beijing dispatched to Delhi a team of delegates from nongovernmental sectors – the IT industry, academia, and think tanks. In the words of U.S. Admiral Harry Harris, the People’s Republic of China would be the one actor to blame for a “trust deficit” in the Indo-Pacific region. Still, India’s Jaishankar described the Chinese emergence as a stimulator rather than a mere threat, inasmuch as it opens up a universe of new possibilities for emerging nations, and paves the way for New Delhi’s ascension. In a sense, then, it would be no exaggeration to think of Beijing as a role model to be closely watched, and followed to some extent. Japan and South Korea, the two other East Asian powerhouses, were timidly present at the Raisina Dialogue, an aspect to be lamented.
The world seen from the Raisina Dialogue is a platform for demonstrations of Indian national pride too. From the beginning, the South Asian giant was depicted by locals as well as foreigners – again and again – as a great power to be. Objective reasons abound for the optimistic prognosis: India today outperforms in just about every dimension. The economy has been growing at an accelerated pace, leaving room for speculations on who will actually rival China by 2050. The India-U.S. partnership seems ever stronger, not to mention current good relations with the European Union, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and key African nations. Note that India has deftly explored and given a frankly positive connotation to a feature other countries consider to be a liability for foreign policy making: Its enormous democratic constituencies. After all, when New Delhi speaks, it projects the voice of 1.2 billion citizens. India’s contemporary foreign policy caters to its people’s needs while gently negotiating a seat at the high table of international relations. That requires a delicate and balanced approach, as India constantly swings between soft revisionism – by supporting a set of alternative multilateral initiatives from the Global South (eg. BRICS, IBSA, G20) – and status-quo reinforcement policies – especially by way of bilateral talks with representatives from established powers such as Australia, France, the U.K., and the United States, among others.
All in all, my impression is that India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Observer Research Foundation (ORF) – a Delhi-based think tank responsible for the logistics and curation of the Raisina Dialogue – have made a wise bet in bringing to life a flagship forum, one whose discussions and deliberations might echo around the world and set the newest trends.
When delegates coming from approximately 90 countries are commissioned to think about “the situation of the Indo-Pacific region,” “the emergence of a Bay of Bengal community,” “digital money and connectivity,” or “a new ethos for the world to come,” it means that India is tentatively drawing the contours of a new self-referenced narrative on geopolitics and geoeconomics. Having just concluded its third edition, the Raisina Dialogue already shines as a mandatory stop for world leaders and thinkers. May that impetus last.
This is the final piece of a series of three articles for The Diplomat on global political forums and the representation of Asia’s rise. Two other pieces — “Where Was Asia at Web Summit 2017?” and “Asia’s Place at the 2017 Halifax Security Forum” — were published in November and December 2017, respectively.