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Independent India at 60: A Young State and an Ancient Civilization

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August 2007
Independent India at 60: A Young State and an Ancient Civilization

In an exclusive interview with Khabar, Indian Ambassador to the U.S., Ronen Sen, talks about how, after 60 years of independence, the country, led by a blazing economic turnaround, seems set on a path of resurgence to its historic glory—even as it confidently meets its daunting challenges.

"India may be a young State, but we were a nation much before we were a State, and we were a civilization much before we were a nation," said Ambassador Ronen Sen during a recent Atlanta visit, reiterating one of his signature messages.

A country that has just emerged from its colonial shackles (historically speaking) is already displaying confidence that seems to come from its heritage of being a developed civilization for more than 5,000 years. For many—in and outside the country—India, today, may be all about economic progress. But the country also continues to move ahead with its plurality and diversity. In its quest for economic parity, it has not sacrificed its democratic ideals. Sure, there are daunting challenges as well. A large segment of its society is still untouched by the emerging economic boom. Undeniably, the changes, which started in the '90s, have been reaching a greater number of people than ever before, but the momentum still has a way to go.

Being the ambassador of a nation of over a billion people may well be one of the toughest jobs on the planet; more so, when the country in question is at the cusp of such monumental changes. But if there is a person who can meet the challenge of the job, Ambassador Sen, thanks to his rare combination of finesse and forthrightness, certainly appears to be precisely such a man. During a recent visit to Atlanta, Sen talked with Khabar about the country and about his job representing such a dynamic nation.

During your recent speech in Atlanta you were not shy about talking about our hostile neighbors. You were also forceful in pointing out that to claim democracy as a Western invention is extremely arrogant. And then there is your famous reproach to Congressman Lantos regarding his critical comments about India's stance vis-�-vis Iran. How has your innate forthrightness played into your diplomatic career?

I believe [that] in diplomacy, like in other human relations, you have to be straightforward. I am not apologetic of being Indian. On the contrary, I am proud of it. It is a known fact that unless you have self-respect, no one is going to respect you. I also believe that self-esteem is not like ego but is a part of human dignity, and I firmly believe that there is good reason to take pride for who we are and what we aspire to be. India may be a young State, but we were a nation much before we were a State, and we were a civilization much before we were a nation. Therefore in relation with any country, including the United States, we believe in developing a strategic partnership based on mutual benefit. I do not use these words superficially. The strength, resilience, and durability of the relationship are enhanced if they are based on mutual respect and mutual benefit. If any relationship is one-sided, it does not last very long. The second aspect is partnership, and it implies we can agree to disagree. We have differences in our own families, and so to say that you have to follow the lead of some other country in determining your policy?that India will not do—not with any country, be it our closest friend. Those determinations will be made in Delhi, not in any other capital, and they will be based on our interest, not perceived interest by any other nation. If you look at the long-term individual national interest of both countries, I don't see a major divergence. Hence I feel confident of this relationship.

We have seen some warm and cold spells in recent times regarding the nuclear nonproliferation negotiations between the two countries. How do you foresee it will shape up in the upcoming years?

If there is any feeling or any perception that this civil nuclear cooperation does not stand on the basis of its own merits, that is, if it is believed that this cooperation is not as good for the United States as it could be for India, then it will not be durable. If there is a belief that India is being done a favor, for which India has to pay back in some other terms of following a lead for international relationships, then it will be based on quicksand and not a solid foundation. Both sides are negotiating in good faith, and it is not an easy task to convert an agreement between the highest levels of political offices on both sides into a legal document. It is a process which is sometimes difficult. But having said that, I am confident that given the will, we will be successful.

India is certainly a hot spot in the global economy. Please comment on this phenomenon of ‘India Shining.'

There have been a load of phrases used: ‘India Shining,' ‘India Unleashed,' ‘India Everywhere,' ‘Incredible India' and so on, [as if to suggest that this is a new phenomenon]. But I tell you that our growth rate has gone steadily upwards, not sporadically. During the early years of our Independence, in the 50s and 60s, our growth rate of 3.5 percent was sometimes ridiculed as the ‘Hindu rate of growth.' But those people who made such remarks ignored the fact that the British colonial rate of growth hovered around 0 percent. Those kinds of arrogant statements were made based on ignorance, like most arrogant statements are. But from 3.5 percent it increased to close to 5 percent. And then from the mid-‘80s onwards to the beginning of the '90s the growth rate was around 6 percent. From there it accelerated to over 8 percent, and now we have exceeded the 9 percent benchmark. I feel that a growth rate in excess of 10 percent is sustainable, provided we take certain steps, which potentially are:

First, we should make our growth more inclusive. It should not just touch a few people. Everyone should have a stake in the process of economic reforms and liberalization and our integration to the global economy. Second, in the process of our growth, [we must] meet the basic necessities of our people. In this area we will have to increasingly concentrate on education, not just higher education but even primary education, together with greater focus on the education of our culture. We need to concentrate on not only creating more centers of excellence in the engineering and management but also a greater stress on vocational training so that people can find gainful employment and/or be self employed. The third task at hand is for the government to focus on primary health care and nutrition, particularly focusing on the first year of a child's life. Another area of focus is that employment generation should keep pace with our growth rate. Finally, we need to tackle our infrastructure, which is one of the biggest constraints to growth.

I would say that the problems are not insurmountable, but rather are very much amenable to solutions. For example, I mentioned that infrastructure is a constraint, but it is correspondingly also an opportunity. If you recall the telecommunications industry, [there was a time in the recent past] when we had lengthy waiting periods for a telephone connection; and even when we got one, we had to shout to make ourselves heard. We started our telecom reform and privatization in 1998 and early 1999, about the same time as Germany did. And it (Germany) is still in the process of privatization reform today, whereas India has now emerged as a global leader in terms of our systems and efficiency. It has the most cost-effective system globally and the fastest growing market in the world—all in less than a decade.

A similar success story is seen in civil aviation, which is booming in India. An annually compounded growth rate of 25 percent can be sustained for a long time, as we are currently growing faster than that. Can you imagine if we had a modern airport in a large number of cities—say 45 airports?

In the current environment that you speak about, what would you deem is your greatest challenge and what is your biggest achievement?

The biggest challenge is to bring perception and reality closer together. In India, much unlike many other countries, we are such an open society. We are more open than any society that I have been in so far. We have not only democracy and rule of law but also a respect for difference and diversity, which is not manifested in most parts of the world.

But there still remains a wide disparity between perception and reality, because most are not aware of India's [story]. Whether in terms of economic progress or other development, the massive changes taking place in India, in terms of empowerment and emancipation of a section of the population—within the framework of democracy, a pluralist society, and the rule of law—is something which is unprecedented in world history.

I can understand the ignorance of a section of people in the U.S. But frankly, even in the Indian-American community there are many whose notion of India is frozen in the past. But people are now catching on that it is not "if", but "when" it is that India will be one of the three largest economies of the world. But more important than any statistic is the change in the mindset of its people, particularly the youth and their sense of confidence. We know the problems are of a massive scale. In the ‘80s the poverty level was about 40 percent. It has now come down to 22 percent, which is still unacceptable. But our confidence that we will be able to meet our goals is the main change taking place. This part of the message has not been delivered successfully, but is slowly filtering through.

In terms of achievements, we are not too far from regaining our old heritage of being one of the top three contributors of the world. We were so in the ancient past, and we lost that for a few hundred years in colonial India, and we are making the turnaround. It will not be too long, and as I have said, it is not the matter of "if," but "when."

Can you comment on the pending legislation on immigration in Congress, with reference to its impact on the H1-B visas? Is your office involved in addressing any portion of it?

Determining an immigration policy is the sole prerogative of the country concerned. India determines its own policy and thus it is a national prerogative. As a foreign envoy I have no business in such legislative matters.

But there is another aspect to it that we cannot forget—because we are living in an interdependent world. As an ambassador to Russia and Germany, I have seen walls come down, and it would be a great irony that today you will build walls to keep people out. There is another dimension to globalization. We want to have a greater movement of people. Although we know that there is, to a great extent, free movement of goods and service, we also know that complete free movement of people is not possible, and there will be a period of some adjustments to be made. These national policies will be determined nationally. But they should also take into account these parallel negotiations which are taking place at the multilateral forums.

In the race for economic progress, the general perception is that even though India is truly democratic, China always seems to be ahead?

I am not comparing and we should not compare ourselves. India's own interest will be served by a peaceful and prosperous neighborhood, and China is our biggest neighbor, Indonesia is our second largest neighbor, Pakistan is our third largest neighbor. It took the tsunami for the people of the world to look at the map and realize that Indonesia is 60 nautical miles from India, and we have a maritime boundary. So India's own development will be aided by a greater prosperity in our region and greater stability in our region. I also believe that it is not "India or China" or "India versus China," but "India and China," because the world is big enough to accommodate the interest of both countries. There will always be elements of competition and cooperation in this relationship but I hope the element of cooperation will gain the upper hand.

Increasingly, a viewpoint that is gaining momentum is that America, especially the young, seems to be receding morally and ethically and in other ways.

I think it depends on how you look at it. If this was so, I don't think Indian students who have the choice of going anywhere in the world would choose the United States as the number one country to come to. People talk of a change of perception after 9/11, but the numbers still speak in favor of America. I travel a lot in the United States and visit a lot of universities as I enjoy not just meeting the presidents, counselors, and the faculty, but I enjoy interacting with the students. I find them to be a bright lot. I think they are from the finest educational institutions in the world. They are global leaders in terms of innovation and creative thinking.

I think sometimes people get unnecessarily disillusioned. Of course, [in] any country, specifically in free societies, where discourse, debate, and dissent are fundamental elements of the way we live, our own introspection can be very tough. But that's just the thing; that people do debate: Where are we headed? In most other societies, they don't have such a debate. They suffer from it, and we benefit from it. My reading [about America] is certainly not as negative. My impression is quite the reverse. With each bout of interesting introspection, you emerge, I think, much stronger; and I am confident that it will remain so.

The Bharatiya Pravasi Divas and the OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) are both very idealistic programs. From your projection, when will all this culminate in net gains for both India, the native country, and its global diaspora?

I think the process is already under way. India benefits immensely from the experiences and the intellectual capital of the Indian-American community, and also the exposure to, and direct knowledge of international best practices in various areas. But, particularly, I would single out two very dynamic aspects of India's heritage. The two strengths that are also reflected in the Indian-American communities, which we are just starting to explore again after a gap of some years, are: entrepreneurship and innovation. These two aspects can benefit us tremendously. This process is already under way and programs like the Bharatiya Sanman gatherings are basically meant to be sort of the catalyst to bring about this kind of interaction. It is not right to await this event just on an annual basis, because what happens in between these once-a-year events? Each one or each group can contribute in their respective areas, as I believe that the Indian-American community can contribute greatly because they are successful entrepreneurs. You have more than 5,000 members of faculty in top universities, numerous deans, provosts, and presidents, all brilliant members, in so many other areas ? physicians, lawyers, members within hospitality sectors can benefit their mother country without at all going against the interest of the country of adoption. As I said, to end, where I began, I do not see our long-term national interest diverging at any point in the foreseeable future.

By VIREN MAYANI


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