India @ the Heart of Asia

With so many summits and conferences going on this month in the Global South, and many of them in Asia, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on India’s place in Asia. Also, how Asia and the rest of the world think of India and our position in Asia. We like to think of ourselves as a global emerging power, but it’s worth thinking about “global” and “emerging” for whom, and if our path to that status goes through the region, or not.

For centuries, indeed millennia, India’s renown came from the fact that we were a great civilization more than 5,000 years old. Our Indus Valley Civilization has historically been considered one of the greatest in the world, ranking up there along with the Greek, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and the Chinese. It is worth noting that all of them were born in the Global South, so to speak, or in the Eastern part of the world, if you think that the Greeks considered themselves at the time to be part of Asia Minor.

Then, India became known as a land of great empires and kingdoms, each boasting of incomparable wealth and prosperity. Much of this power and wealth came through trade with other countries, from the Arab world and East Africa all the way to East Asia.

We were also known as a country that spread its religious and spiritual teachings and philosophy, in particular, Hinduism and Buddhism, throughout East Asia, especially South-East Asia. Buddhism in fact spread through the western part of India, through what is now Afghanistan (which explains the now-destroyed Bamiyan statues) into China and later, the Indo-China region.

With such a rich civilization and historical heritage, it is a pity that our own history books (especially textbooks and the way it is taught) choose to focus only on India’s invasions. From Alexander the Great and the Persian emperor Darius to Mahmud of Ghazni, the Mughal emperors and then the British, we have seen our country as the land that attracted foreign invaders. Never mind the reasons why so many from around the world would want to invade our country in the first place: the fact that we were seen as a land of great kingdoms, prosperous and thriving, with a rich and dynamic culture and natural wealth. Never mind the historic fact that in 1500 BC, the Aryans were themselves the original invaders. People with no experience whatsoever of an urban civilization, destroyed one of the greatest urban settlements of the time in the Indus Valley, so they could supplant it with their own culture.

Our narrative has been one of India being a constant target of invasions, a “wounded civilization”, in VS Naipaul’s telling. We have allowed this to affect us so deeply, that we carry with us a sense of wounded pride, a grudge of being wronged always. With the result that we think of ourselves as a people who have been invaded and swamped by alien cultures, with no cultural identity of our own.

The widely held Hindutva belief, by the way, subscribes precisely to this world view. Even if many do not fully agree with the original Aryan purity of race theory, because it is frowned upon nowadays, the dominant view among the Indian population today is that to establish our own cultural identity, we have to be a Hindu Rashtra first. The ruling BJP Party’s own vision of a ‘new India’, one that bolsters our self-confidence as a nation and our belief in ourselves, is born of this view.

I cannot emphasise more how insular and wrong-headed this vision is, born as it is out of a persecution complex, when other more promising paths to achieving global and emerging power status are available. It is a terribly constricted and limited vision of ourselves, that there can only be one dominant culture in India, when our true greatness comes from India’s expansive and all-embracing nature. Walt Whitman’s “we contain multitudes” is probably truer of India than Naipaul’s “wounded civilization”. I wrote about the ancient Sanskrit concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, of accepting the entire world and all of humanity as a family.

In the contemporary world we live in, one that is globalized and truly interconnected, we must widen our horizons and find ways to engage with the international community that go beyond race, religion, caste, gender and age. What is our track record in post-independence India of having integrated with the world?

We built a strong foundation for our economy in the days immediately after achieving independence under Nehru’s guidance as an industrial economy with both the public and the private sectors participating, indeed, even competing in many areas. However, we built these core industries of steel, fertilizer, cement, oil and gas, etc. with the help of technological assistance from western powers. We were one of the first countries to gain independence from colonial rule when compared to other countries in Asia and Africa, and while many came together under Nehru’s idea of the Non-Aligned Movement during the years of the US-Soviet Cold War, we weakened our links with our Asian neighbours and with the region in later years. In fact, the 1955 NAM summit in Bandung, Indonesia, hosts of the current G20 summit, was a significant one.

As a people, we aspired to go west for higher education. Entire families emigrated, and we began talking of a brain-drain in India. In some of the East Asian countries, however, they focused on the best quality of education at home, invested vast sums in technical training and built their countries’ future in steel, concrete, manufacturing and technology. This is not to say that we must emulate our East Asian peers, or even China. On the contrary, we must recognize that our large and diversified economy is a boon, with services and knowledge-based industries dominating.

At the same time, we must ask ourselves what we can do to help our neighboring countries and improve ties within the region. What can we invoke from our great historical connections and our heritage to connect better with the rest of Asia? Trade is clearly one obvious answer, and it is indeed shocking to know how little India trades with its South Asian neighbours as well as with the wider ASEAN region. According to the World Bank, intraregional trade within South Asia accounts for merely 5% of South Asia’s total trade with the world. While intraregional trade within ASEAN countries accounts for 25% of ASEAN’s total trade. Brookings too writes of India’s limited trade connectivity with South Asia. I cannot find relevant figures for India’s total global trade and how much we trade with each region and our Ministry of Commerce website, as I have written before, is a maze deliberately intended to complicate one’s search.

The reasons for reduced trade activity within South Asia are many, starting with border-related issues, limited road and rail connectivity, and extending to tariff and non-tariff barriers as well as a broad trust deficit. We might have ceded garment manufacturing and exports to Bangladesh, but isn’t there scope for improving textile manufacturing upstream and exporting those? We have great information technology and pharmaceutical companies in India that do business globally; what prevents them from improving the quality of technology and healthcare in South Asian countries?

In recent months, global supply chain issues have come to the fore and India nurses ambitions of wanting to become part of the global supply chain, though that can be a double-edged sword. East Asia and China dominate in those, especially when it comes to consumer electronics and semiconductors. India, with its own technology expertise, has room to invest and grow its semiconductor design and manufacture industry and I think these global supply chains ought to become more diversified and less concentrated in any one country or region.

India trades more with countries in the Gulf and Middle East, thanks to its dependence on oil imports, and also because millions of its skilled and semi-skilled workers work there, sending home valuable remittances. This relationship too needs to change, in the sense that the terms of engagement must not rely on economic needs alone, but on wider issues, such as controlling terrorism, climate change and travel connectivity. In any case, with our focus on renewables and cutting down on fossil fuels, the path for future engagement would have to be different from that of the past.

In terms of FDI investment, both inbound and outbound, there is very little engagement with Asia again, and there is scope for improvement. FDI from multinational companies that used to be routed through Mauritius earlier, now come into India via Singapore, following our revising our double taxation avoidance agreements with both countries. We ought to explore greater investment opportunities in South-east and East Asia, as these are not merely the fastest growing economies in the world, they are also hubs of innovation. At the time of the G20 Summit in 2019, I had written about India opting out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and The Economist too wrote about it.

As I have written before in a blog post on India’s diversity being a source of strength, we have to think through several complexities in all of Asia and think strategically about our way forward. Emotive issues tend to bring short-term gains, but the longer term is decided on well-reasoned and more enduring terms of engagement. We have Central Asia above us, and it could well be an important region to build ties with for ensuring our energy security in the years ahead, as Europe is also discovering during the Ukraine crisis. Great powers like US, China and Russia all have interests there, and we also have our own Kashmir problem to cope with. We could explore ways to help Central Asia countries develop their technology and physical infrastructure, just the way we attempted in Afghanistan. The latter country continues to be in crisis, unfortunately, not merely because of a return to Taliban rule, but because of grave economic uncertainty and a humanitarian disaster.

This, then, is the economic reality. We are at the heart of Asia, whether we like it or not. And our route to building our future lies through it. Let us hope we find our way in peaceful and economically beneficial means, bringing gains to all. The G20 presidency has been handed over to India for 2023, and it is for us to take the dialogue forward, with a concrete, specific agenda that will yield tangible progress, as I said in my recent blog post on deglobalisation. I had said that reducing inequality, climate change and labour/human rights ought to be the way forward, as all member countries face these critical issues.

However, the theme of next year’s G20 summit in India and its logo do not inspire much confidence. I had read first in Economic Times Mumbai-Goa edition, about the G20 summit in India and that advertising agencies such as Ogilvy and McCann were tasked with the assignment. Before one could say Jack Robinson, there was our Prime Minister unveiling the G20 2023 Summit theme and logo. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam can be a principle guiding our thoughts and actions, both domestically and internationally, but how can it ever be a conference theme?! A conference theme must arise from the conference agenda – what India wishes to take forward as specific actionable decisions at the meeting.

It would be a sad occasion and a missed opportunity if India cannot summon its intellectual and thinking skills and decide strategically what the global G20 2023 agenda ought to be.

The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by and I am thankful to them. 

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