fresh thinking

Gateway House serves up a lively foreign policy dialogue

Mark Hannant, 15th June 2016

The inaugural Gateway of India Dialogue, held in Mumbai this week, offered expert, lively, and sometimes unconventional, views on India's place in the world.

A top-notch troupe of speakers including business leaders, diplomats, ministers of state, academics, economists, artists and commentators debated, clashed, advocated and, occasionally, found themselves in violent agreement.

The Taj Lands End, an upmarket hotel with sea-facing facade in the cosmopolitan (by Indian standards) suburb of Bandra provided a suitably outward looking venue. Deft casting of panellists and skilled chairmanship meant sessions were energetic and balanced, short on introspection and, unusually for an Indian conference, ran to time.

Opening the two-day event, India's Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar framed the nation's foreign policy in the context of 'business imperatives' rather than the default setting of 'security concerns' - an encouraging start. "There's a growing recognition that business provides the ballast for many of our important international relationships. Increasingly, our foreign policy is dominated by the quest for capital, resources, technology, capabilities and best practices," he said.

A pro-business approach to foreign affairs with a strong emphasis on engagement - a rarely heard approach in a country traditionally obsessed with local rivalries - set a positive tone.

There was no shortage of controversial opinion. Mohandas Pai and Curtis Chin sparred over top-down versus bottom-up innovation. SEBI chairman U.K. Sinha, CIGI chairman Rohinton Medhora and Jane Diplock considered the politics of global capital. The brilliant Diplock pulled no punches damning 'one-eyed regulators' and making a compelling case for sustainable capitalism.

Chris Alexander, who served for two and a half years as Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration offered an unorthodox view on immigration making a well-articulated case for "the positive things that come when the flow of talent follows the flow of capital". His co-panelist, the economist Lant Pritchett, was combative and impassioned as he decried governments' rigging of labour markets and pointed out the folly of bringing automation to India with its abundance of available labour. "It makes no sense!" he shouted.

Author and columnist Shobhaa De effectively marshalled Vikas Swarup, Ministry of External Affairs spokesman (and author of the book that became the film Slumdog Millionaire), Bollywood director Kabir Khan and art buff Hugo Weihe as they listed examples of India's soft power including Bollywood and yoga. "Let's export more idlis and sambar!" concluded De.

The calibre and diversity of speakers underlines the impressive pulling power of Gateway House's founders the former diplomat Neelam Deo and award-winning journalist Manjeet Kripalani. Their contribution to the current debate on India's place in the world is unparalleled. They'll have to work hard to top this event next year as India celebrates 70 years of independence, but it will certainly be a date to look forward to.

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