By NS Ramnath
The decor was very much Indian - a few sarees flowing down from huge panels on the stage - but the air was very much Oxford - suffused with irony, old boy jokes and a sense of ambition that extended far beyond today's problems and even pessimism. The inaugural India Day @ Oxford took place at an old world hotel located right in front of imposing Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The overarching theme for this year was the political economy of India, and the role it will play in 21st century. The cast included Salman Khurshid, India's external affairs minister, Arun Jaitley, senior opposition leader, Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, besides academics from the university, and senior editors from the Network18 group, including Rajdeep Sardesai and Senthil Chengalvarayan.
India Day @ Oxford is designed to be a biannual event - the second one will take place in India later this year - and aims to bring together policy makers, thought leaders, academics and businessmen who will discuss issues that are important for India as it gains economic strength. There were three big takeaways from the inaugural event which lasted for close to 4 hours.
1. The importance of soft power: One of the biggest questions that India faces today is how it will match its growing economic power with political power. Economic strength and political clout often go hand in hand. (Lord Patten pointed out Europe dominated the 19th century - when its demography and economy multiplied. America dominated the next - when it accounted for a fourth of global economy.) But how that power is exercised differs from country to country. India's focus should be on soft power. Part of it comes from its secular and democratic traditions - which hold together a very diverse country. But, it also comes from its art and culture.
By design or accident, India seems to be going in that direction. Salman Khurshid's speech focused mainly on the government initiatives that sought to give more power to its citizens by way of say, free education or food security - as if to suggest that trying to govern one's own country well is about the best foreign policy one can hope to have.
2. The increasing complexity of the world: India's economic rise is also happening at a time when the world is getting increasingly more complex. The technological development has accelerated like never before. The interconnections have strengthened. And the world has become truly multipolar in many ways. That has changed the way countries look at each other. Dr Kate Sullivan invoked the folk tale of six blindmen touching an elephant - each of whom imagined it to be in a form they happened to touch. One saw it as a pillar, another as a fan, yet another as a wall and so on. That's pretty much how countries view each other - from their own unique perspective. The big lesson here is to develop more narratives than to go by one or two measures of political power.
3. The challenges to parliamentary democracy: Several debates that raged around Indian political architecture back in 50s and 60s - such as whether parliamentary democracy is the right system for the country - have become irrelevant. Arun Jaitley said that today it's clear that the best system for India is parliamentary democracy - with all its checks, balances and accountability. Many problems that the country faces today - such as poverty and undernourishment - will be solved by economy growing at 7-8% over the next 10 to 12 years. However, there are other problems that economic growth will not take care of. The Naxalism in parts of the country. It's not coming down, it's spreading, he said. The quality of politics has also come down - some of the solutions (such as barring people from criminal records, or state funding of elections, or the power to recall elected officials) haven't worked or are unlikely to work.
Of course, a half-day event cannot come up with solutions - but discussions can often bring clarity, and lead to better understanding. In someways, events such as these is also an example of India's softpower.
(This also coincides with the institution of scholarships in the honor of Pran Nath Bahl, father of Network18 founder Raghav Bahl at Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme at Oxford.)
Updated Date: Jun 15, 2013 09:36 AM