By Bijan Mehryar
On March 31st the IAG hosted the Consul General of India, San Francisco, Shri N. Parthasarathi, for a talk on India–U.S. relations. Bijan Mehryar, our co-president, was given the generous opportunity to interview the Consul General before he spoke.
First of all, thank you very much for this opportunity. I’d like to dive right into it. As Narendra Modi is widely expected to be India’s next prime minister, I was wondering if you have any thoughts about how the BJP’s approach to foreign policy might differ from UPA and Congress?
See first of all BJP is not a new party from where someone is trying to assume power; the BJP has already been in power. Secondly, as you will know, apart from other issues, as far as foreign policy is concerned, normally whichever government is in power normally follows the same policy; there is no drastic change in policy. What could vary is only certain aspects, the pace or speed – that is all the variation. But as of today, Mr. Modi, we don’t know. The elections are to take place; there are so many parties. What is going to happen is anyone’s guess. But what some of the people have seen, is that what he has done in Gujarat in terms of economic development and bringing certain transparency and decision-making. Based on that, people are hoping once it comes it will be good for the economic development aspect. As far as foreign policy is concerned I don’t foresee any great change because it is all based on India’s self-interest that has not changed.
Do you think that if Mr. Modi becomes the next Prime Minister that the same policies he pursued in Gujarat, opening up the economy, more foreign direct investment, more foreign involvement, is what we will see replicated across India?
Hopefully. This is what everyone hopes – that there will be a more transparent and clear decision-making that will help with attracting foreign direct investment, growth of the economy, and people can take action with certainty. But at the same time, campaigning and holding office is not the same thing. But I think the general opinion is that if he comes to power the focus will be on the economic development.
Now one organization that India has been a part of for a long-time, one that it spearheaded, is the Non-aligned Movement. I’m wondering these days as we see different nodes of power, whether it is the EU, the United States, or Russia, does India still see relevance and importance in its membership in the Non-aligned Movement in the 21st Century?
Yes. Not just the membership part of it, but the very idea of non-alignment, which has been mistakenly, or for other reasons, projected as either neutrality or not taking a side – [that projection] is not non-alignment. Non-alignment is basically not being aligned to any country, every decision is taken based on each issue, keeping our interest in the picture and taking each issue by itself. That continues to be relevant today and will also be relevant in the future because India is not into having alliances and making special military arrangements. The policy has served India well because today India is not an enemy to any country; no country is so hostile to India.
Except for maybe Pakistan?
Pakistan is a neighbor and there are irritants, but it is not like hostility in a different sense. When there is a neighbor you have problems, especially when the neighbor has internal issues and faces the challenge of terrorism. In the global arena though there are 200 countries, our policy has served us well because we are not enemies with any country.
Part of your tenure involved serving as Ambassador to Senegal while also being accredited to many other African countries. Now Africa is a continent where China has been investing lots of money securing mineral rights. Does India view China’s investment in Africa as an economic threat?
No, it’s a different thing. The difference is as they say, China does it bigger, but India does it better. The point is, and this may come as a surprise to you, India provides 5 billion dollars of economic assistance every two years to Africa. It is not entirely grants but also includes soft loans. Secondly, we take thousands of people and train them in India – we pay for airfare transport and everything. Give them skills, and give them courses. More importantly, relatively even though we may not spend as much money, the projects that we do like promoting women’s empowerment, small-scale industry, training skills, agricultural promotion, these are all things that are people oriented. These are not huge infrastructure oriented or mining investments to make profit. These are all people-focused. Because of this there is a tremendous amount of good will generated towards India. And they want these kinds of projects, so the multiplier effect is enormous. I will give you one simple example. We take mothers and grandmothers who are in the villages who have never left their villages and don’t speak a national language, we take them to India and train them in solar energy and after six months they go back as solar technicians, and then some NGO funds them and these women, they set up the complete solar grid for the village.
So whereas China has placed a lot of focus on mining rights and ports, India’s investment strategy, if you can call it that, is a more human centered approach?
Yes, it is a people-centered approach, and in fact it is about developing their potential. This has worked very well. It is not my mandate to say whether China is doing right or wrong, but I would say that India has done very well here and we have been involved in the region for a long time.
The Mahatma spent a great deal of time in South Africa.
Yes, he came from there. Everyone looks to India as a country that is a stable force in the world, but also takes up issues that are important to other countries at the international level and tries to help them share what we have, as you call a “brotherly country.”
You brought up an interesting point, so to jump ahead – India is seen in some respects as the “mother of the developing world,” so do you think this is the most significant reason why India should be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council?
You see when the permanent council was formed long back it was a different world and today what we have is a different world. If any international institution wants to be relevant and effective it must reflect the realities of the world. So I don’t think there is anybody who says India should not be on the council or does not deserve it – even the United States supports it – but it is a matter of when these reforms will take place so India will be there.
As far the current government’s strategy is concerned, are you going to wait until you have enough votes in the General Assembly or for the institution itself to invite India to the table?
Well it doesn’t just take the vote of the General Assembly. There needs to be an agreement with the permanent members regarding the expansion and what form it will take. Those discussions have started happening, but the sooner they accelerate the better, because every great power supports India being there.
The next aspect of Indian foreign policy I want to ask you about is one which I believe you played a major role in as Ambassador to South Korea – the “Look East” policy which began under the Rao government in the early 90s. What benefits has India gained aside from the good relations with this policy?
Oh they are tremendous because today as you know, even in terms of production and various other things concerned, the pivot has shifted and the central focus is on Asia now. When we talk about Look East policy we are looking at Southeast Asia as well as South Korea, Japan, etc. the countries in our neighborhood. We have a lot of cultural similarities and shared history between us all. So the distances have shortened as these countries’ economies have expanded and grown. India came into the Look East policy because that was the immediate next circle we had to pay attention to. For example, in South Korea trade has expanded by much and in China by 30-40 times. We have a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with South Korea, and Japan has become a major partner for us. Apart from the economic and commercial benefits, it has generated a clear-cut goodwill. Among these countries India is considered a stabilizing force and is seen doing this for the region and is not interested in making a quick advantage of the situation.
Do you see the Look East policy continuing in that fashion or do you see a shift moving over to Latin America? Brazil, also a member of the BRICs with India has seen a lot of focus shifted its way. Do you think its time for India to perhaps recalibrate its policy?
I wouldn’t speak for the overall policy, but basically the idea is that whichever area is seen as important, that is where the focus will be. But at the same time we have the BRICs concept, which is not new, we’ve had this relationship for a long time. And also as the communication facilities, other facilities to reach at becomes easier, the trade and other interests continue to improve.  So likewise in Latin America, if you take in the last few years slowly and steadily, the relationship and economy have gotten more and more joined together. But it doesn’t have to either/or. Or that one must come at the expense of the other. It is not necessary. But you also have the possibility of expanding your interests. Africa, even though we are doing much there we can still continue to expand our efforts and do more.
I want now, as we’re winding down, to go to one of the most important dynamics and that is the India–Pakistan–U.S. relationship. During the Cold War India was seen as being closer to the USSR, and the United States was heavily involved in Pakistan after Zia ul-Huq’s coup. So does India have a negative outlook on the United States’ relationship with Pakistan?
No. Let me put it this way, whatever the perspective or understanding during the Cold War period was, today what you have is a completely different picture. First of all, the United States has a better understanding of India and Pakistan, after following whatever policies were in place has become a victim of what it practiced — in the sense that terrorism is a big issue in Pakistan itself. Secondly, Pakistan used to think because they are growing they were assuming that Indian Muslims looked up to them. But today even in Pakistan people believe and know that India has moved ahead in terms of economics and other factors. As you know, and not to forget, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, but there is no one belonging to Al Qaeda, and that itself shows them that this is a society where anyone can get ahead through the proper democratic process. Now what is happening, is how are we going to respond to terrorism being the epicenter and how can we ensure the stability of the region and avoid terrorist attacks across the border. Given that understanding, also it’s important to recognize the progress that India and Pakistan have made together, including the trade and dialogue things that have continued to happen. It’s an important issue, but things are being addressed.
Can you elaborate on these areas that have seen improvement?
For example, one area that has quietly been happening is trade, and secondly even the visits across, in terms of visa and permissions, we have been fairly generous – even providing visas at the border. Culturally too they are popular in India, not just in Punjab, but also in Mumbai and other places. A greater people-people interaction. All of these under the SARC umbrella are happening. But the thing is for things to move terrorism cannot be, as long as terrorism can be held back.
Do you see terrorism as an issue where there needs to be cooperation between India and Pakistan or as an area where Pakistan needs to work on for the relationship to improve?
See you can’t put conditions on anything and everything. But everybody expects and hopes a state should be able to, and need to, control terrorism on its soil and particularly should not allow the terrorists to use their soil to go across and commit atrocities and terrorist activities.
Today actually, the current U.S. Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, announced her resignation and as you know in the last couple months there have been issues with one of your colleagues — an Indian diplomat in New York. Is this just a small spat or does this highlight a bigger divide in U.S.–Indian relations?
If you consider U.S.-Indian relations, both are large democracies, and the sectors and areas [the United States and India] cooperate in are huge, so no one issue can hold these relationships hostage and it will not. Whenever you have dynamic democracies you will always have aberrations or irritants that will come up. It is a question of how both sides interact with each other, resolve, get over it and move ahead. It should be a bump in the road and should not be made to grow bigger.
Your Excellency, thank you very much for the talk, I have one last question. As part of my preparation for the interview I read your biography and you are someone who is trained as an engineer, got his MBA and has a post-graduate degree in industrial management – how did you end up in the Indian Foreign Service?
When you start a journey, you don’t know the last destination you’re going to reach because it’s not visible at that time. For you what is important at any given time during your life is that you should know you are in the right direction, and for a short distance you should be clear with what you can see and should be able to reach it. This is how the journey begins and when you keep doing this you see there is a bigger canvas to explore. 35 years back, 300,000 graduate students were taking this exam for maybe 12-15 spots. But the key is that if someone can do it why not you? That’s the mindset you should have. The great advantage of joining the Foreign Service is that it gives you great opportunities. You can go across continents, interact with different cultures and interact with people from all levels of society. One day you are talking about health, the next day nanoengineering and the third day cultural diplomacy. The fantastic thing is that if you set your mind to it you can do it. The only impediment is you. You keep doing it and that it is.
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