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January 2, 2011

Roundtable

The Takshashila Roundtable Conclave programme aims to create a shared understanding of India’s national interests that can serve as the intellectual bases for public policy. The programme brings high-quality, cutting-edge discussions on strategic affairs, national security and governance to cities and towns across India, creating a platform for dynamic individuals to connect with each other and to the wider policy-making circles.

The inaugural address by Rohini Nilekani apart, the discussions were conducted under the Chatham House rule.

Inaugural address
Mrs Nilekani noted that while the last two decades have been wonderful for India it is unclear if the next decade will be better. From corruption scandals, to violence to environmental problems people are feeling increasingly helpless. For all the diversity there is a certain commonality of problems across the country. She asked if sarkar (government) and bazaar (market) had suppressed samaj (society)? The proper role and the relationships between the three is critical to India’s future.

Introducing the discourse over social capital, Mrs Nilekani argued that India needs more “linking social capital” (which, according to Michael Woolcock, a social scientist at Harvard University, “reaches out to unlike people in dissimilar situations, such as those who are entirely outside of the community, thus enabling members to leverage a far wider range of resources than are available in the community.” – Ed). She rounded off her remarks by calling for a ‘domestic non-aligned movement’ in our politics inspired by the idea of India laid out in the Constitution.

In the following discussion it was noted that the role of sanskar (culture) must be recognised while discussing the dynamics of sarkar, bazaar & samaj. Also, the participants felt that we are eroding social capital in the rush towards individual entitlements.

The bases of policy
What might be the broad ideas that should inform and guide public policy?

The first leading discussant argued that India’s growth cannot be sustained unless we have second generation of reforms. Unfortunately, the case for reform was never really made to the masses. At this time, the apparent popularity of gargantuan, wasteful spending programmes has caused even the presumably right-of-centre political parties to embrace them. This trend is unsustainable and threatens to undermine India’s developmental goals. There is a need for right-of-centre political parties to have the conviction of liberal economic policies before they take them to the electorate.

The second discussant noted that the daily lives of 99 percent of Indian citizens are affected by something more mundane—urban governance. Yet, India remains a highly centralised state, removing ordinary citizens from meaningful local participation and prodding accountable governance. Ironically, with well functioning cities China could claim a more robust urban democracy, if official responsiveness to citizens’ local needs is a measure of democracy.

An inclusive and functioning future is possible only by purging India’s top heavy systems and building its systems of taxation, governance, accountability and responsibility based on subsidiarity. Radical decentralisation is called for.

Geopolitical environment
Following a comprehensive summary of the state of international politics, the leading discussant noted that despite the rise in prominence of non-state actors—like terrorists, banks and Wikileaks—the role of nation-states continues to be relevant. With the shifting of power to the East, India will have a more important geopolitical, but it is not necessary for us “to beg for a seat at the UN Security Council”. Also, foreign policy must move beyond defending our red lines into a more sophisticated strategic approach.

In the words of a Japanese diplomat, for the first time China is both strong and rich, which is likely to have profound implications for the rest of the world. India, like much of the world, lacks a strategic understanding of China and its structure. There is a great need to demystify China. It is an ancient state while India is a new state, although both are old civilisations

Geoeconomics and us
The Western economic crisis has opened up a unique opportunity for India. Against this backdrop, the session on geoeconomics focused on the economic strategy that India needs to pursue in the post-crisis era and also whether sustained economic growth would help sort out internal security issues.

Despite the attractions of the Chinese model of mercantilist growth, India would do well to continue with its current strategy of growth led by strong domestic demand. The weak global economy will make export-led growth a risky proposition. Also, the Chinese model requires an undervalued exchange rate, dangerously high levels of domestic credit growth and a suppression of domestic demand, especially consumer demand. India should continue to engage with the global economy without pursuing the Chinese mercantilist model. However, the one thing India would do well to emulate China is boosting labour-intensive manufacturing.

Higher economic growth should provide more economic opportunities to the poor and thus reduce some internal security risks. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between domestic pressure points such as Naxalism and the problems in Kashmir, where terrorism is fuelled from across the border.

National security matters
The focus was Kashmir. In addition to politics and foreign policy, it stressed the urgent need of police reforms in the state. While the state police force has evolved into one of the finest counterinsurgency forces in the country, its response to mob violence since 2008 points to its failure to adapt to the changed situation.

India will need to act decisively along several fronts: diplomatically, India has to gear itself up to challenge the prevailing narrative in Washington DC about Kashmir in the evolving AfPak scenario. While the final battle for Kashmir will be fought in the minds of the Indians, it is equally important to convince the Kashmiris that their future lies with India, and not anywhere else. Bold political initiatives will be necessary when the opportunity arises again soon.

Red Dot & personal actional planning
A wide range of topics—from Wikileaks, to the Baloch insurgency, to whether public policy suffers from a shortfall of ideas or implementation—were taken up. The Roundtable concluded with a participants writing out their own personal action plans, some of which were shared with the rest.


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