In conversation with India Inc. Founder & CEO Manoj Ladwa, India's Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, addressed a series of incisive questions - from the mission of a self-reliant India to flying to the UK amid the Covid-19 crisis.
India's Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who is the country's top diplomat as the administrative head of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), undertook what has been a rather rare occurrence during the course of a pandemic-hit 2020 when he arrived in the UK this week at the end of his three-nation tour of Europe.
After Paris and Berlin, his London visit was also characterised by the central theme of the growing influence and importance of the Indo-Pacific region. And, while both France and Germany have articulated their policy stance vis-à-vis the region, the UK is expected to reflect a strong pivot towards the Indo-Pacific once it concludes its ongoing Integrated Review.
“An Indo-Pacific guided by norms and governed by rules, with freedom of navigation, open connectivity, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, is an article of faith for India,” declared Shringla.
As his Europe visit coincided with what is shaping up to be quite a nail-biter of a US Presidential election, India Inc. Founder & CEO Manoj Ladwa opened his Global Dialogue Series discussion by getting the senior diplomat's take on how he sees the Donald Trump versus Joe Biden contest panning out.
And, given his tenure as the Indian Ambassador to Washington just before his move to the MEA in New Delhi, Shringla certainly has a unique vantage point to US-India relations.
“It is clearly a very close contest and there will be some more excitement in store. But India's relationship with the US has come a long way. Therefore, irrespective of the outcome, India's relations will remain robust and strong,” he noted.
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He said the Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership that the two sides have clinched covers all areas mutual interest and there is good feeling all around - whether it is Trump-Pence or Biden-Harris.
But given that the world is in the midst of a pandemic, the US election results are up in the air and the Brexit negotiations are also far from a conclusion, what motivated the diplomatic tour to Europe
In response, the Foreign Secretary admitted that his visit comes under very unusual circumstances, in fact it concluded on Wednesday just a day before England went into its second lockdown.
He explained: “But New Delhi felt this is an opportune time to come down to touch base with our principle interlocutors; we felt engaging with Europe is important and there is no substitute to direct contact.
“We have been speaking to each other virtually, but it is not quite the same. The visit gave me an opportunity to articulate how we see the geopolitical situation in the wake of the Covid crisis.”
In specific reference to UK-India relations, the senior diplomat highlighted that the post-Brexit scenario gives India an “extraordinary opportunity” to reset ties with the UK, to see how to “recalibrate the institutional cooperation” and “seek what our Prime Ministers [Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson] see as a transformative relationship”.
During the course of his virtual interaction with the wider Indian diaspora base in the UK as part of the Global Dialogue Series, he singled out the “very vibrant living bridge” as the key to getting the bilateral relationship into fast gear.
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Among the several important topics raised during the insightful discussion, Shringla was asked to decode Atmanirbhar Bharat - how this strident self-reliant Indian agenda on the one hand and the more global, liberalised India on the other, go hand in hand.
He explained: “The concept of atmanirbharta or self-reliance has to be seen the context of the Covid crisis, the worst crisis that has inflicted mankind since the Second World War. We haven't yet fully understood the extent and the dimensions of this crisis, not only in terms of the loss of lives but also the economic impact.
“In that context, Prime Minister Modi enunciated the policy of Atmanirbhar Bharat for us to gain confidence, enable us to create the capacities, which would enable us not only to help ourselves but help other countries of the world.”
Giving some insights into the inner workings of this concept, he revealed that at the start of crisis, India faced a shortage of health-related equipment - personal protective equipment (PPEs), masks, test kits and ventilators.
“But there is a certain resilience within us which made us innovate; automobile manufacturers were asked to manufacture ventilators and production was ramped up. Under the Atmanirbhar programme, we are not only producing enough of these for ourselves but also able to provide to countries all over the world. From just 16,000 ventilators in hospitals at the start of the crisis, we now propose to have 500,000 ventilators,” he reflected.
Therefore, an Atmanirbhar Bharat equates to capacity building, fully integrating India into the global supply chains and also manufacturing enough so that it can be distributed to countries most in need.
“India is the pharmacy of the world and supplies medicines all over the world. At the start of the pandemic, there was a huge demand for medicines like hydroxychloroquine, we ensured that production was increased and sent out to at least 150 countries, at least half at cost or on gratis basis,” said Shringla.
The India Inc. Global Dialogue Series was launched in London earlier this year to explore such subjects that reflect India's international outlook in conversation with authoritative voices across the board - from India and across the globe.
“Covid has highlighted a lot of amazing strengths about India in perhaps a way that the world was not always conscious of,” noted Manoj Ladwa, as he concluded the latest in the series.
*More about the Global Dialogue Series