Shri Suresh Prabhu spoke with SAV Editor-at-large Akriti Vasudeva and SAV Managing Editor Brigitta Schuchert on various issues related to India’s regional strategy, foreign policy, and economic development, as well as its role at the upcoming G20 summit. Suresh Prabhu is a current Member of Parliament representing Andhra Pradesh in the Rajya Sabha as well as India’s Sherpa to the G20. During his political career, he has held ten cabinet positions, and has previously served as India’s Union Minister for Power, Union Minister for Railways, and Union Minister for Civil Aviation. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Role of Connectivity in India’s Regional Strategy
In the 10 cabinet positions I have held—six in Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet and four in the cabinet of Shri Narendra Modi—connectivity and infrastructure have remained major issues. Connectivity plays a key role, in both India’s Neighborhood First and Act East policies. Connectivity can come in various forms. There is physical connectivity, i.e. connecting through air, through land, and through water. But there are also the newer possibilities of digital connectivity.
With regards to physical connectivity, we are working on each mode. We want to use roads and railways to better link Northeast India with other areas in South and Southeast Asia. We are already constructing a railway line from Northeastern India to Bangladesh, but we aim to establish these connections to Myanmar as well. We are also looking to build connections beyond the immediate neighborhood by involving our neighbors to connect to others. For example, we are exploring the possibility of a corridor with our neighbors in Central Asia, passing through Iran and other countries in the region, to extend as far as Russia and Europe. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific has a vision for connecting the whole of Asia, and eventually linking these connections to Europe. So, we have been discussing this not only with other countries in the region, but the United Nations as well.
We are also making a big push on water connectivity, not only through the sea, but through rivers. Many rivers in India are international, so they can be used for water navigation to nearby countries. Additionally, we are working to develop better air links, both with our neighbors and beyond. As the Aviation Minister, for instance, I organized a global aviation summit in Mumbai, which was attended by as many as 86 countries. We brought together all the key stakeholders, including airlines, airplane manufacturers, airport authorities, and travel agents.
We are also looking to build connections beyond the immediate neighborhood by involving our neighbors to connect to others. For example, we are exploring the possibility of a corridor with our neighbors in Central Asia, passing through Iran and other countries in the region, to extend as far as Russia and Europe.
Besides physical connectivity, there’s the growing potential of digital connectivity, which is also very important. In some ways, with digital connectivity, there’s no need for physical linkages and the possibilities are endless. That is the new vision that we are working on.
For instance, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) of India, and the Information and Communications Technology Division (ICTD) of Bangladesh on cooperation in the field of Information Technology and Electronics on April 8, 2017 for strengthening cooperation in the areas of e-governance, m-governance, e-public services delivery, cyber security, software technology park, start-ups, etc.
During the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Bhutan in June 2014, an e-library project was announced. As part of this project, India has established e-library setups at 49 schools and 12 colleges across Bhutan for accessing e-content from a central repository in online and offline mode. The central repository is established at Thimphu Tech Park for online access of e-content on own devices by all citizens of Bhutan, and an e-Library studio has also been setup at Thimphu for creation of this e-content.
Relations with China
As you know, we have a long border with China and a longstanding border dispute. There was the war in 1962 and there have been regular skirmishes since then. We have always felt that we should have a good neighborly relationship with China, but we also believe very strongly in our sovereignty. We would like to protect our own borders. Our geographical territory is our right and we would like to protect each part of that.
Growing the Indian Economy
To become a $5 trillion economy, we have a vision. As the Commerce and Industry Minister, I had prepared a plan: 20 percent of $5 trillion, that is $1 trillion, will come from industry; 60 percent, that is $3 trillion, will come from services; and 20 percent, that is another trillion dollars, will come from agriculture. That plan is ready, and it is an open-ended plan in which we can get investments from several countries in the world. So, we are not depending on a single country to drive our goal of a $5 trillion economy and would like to work together with different partners in ways that will make sure that we reach our target.
We would like to be more connected to the rest of the world, through open trade and commerce. But at the same time, we would like to grow our own entrepreneurial spirit in India as well. That describes our policy of “Atmanirbhar Bharat,” meaning a self-reliant India. We feel that we need to be focused on further developing India, but the rest of the world can also benefit from their participation in this project. That is why we have opened up FDI in almost all sectors. We are removing hurdles to investment. This mindset is not exclusive or restrictive, it’s an inclusive idea, and this is how we’ll move forward.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Indian Economy
Three years ago, when I was Commerce and Industry Minister, I set up a high-level taskforce headed by Dr. Surjit Bhalla, who is now India’s Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund. Also present was our current External Affairs Minister, Dr. Jaishankar, though at the time he was in private business. Many industry associations were a part of this group. We had prepared a vision for how we can attract global supply chains to India by integrating them into India’s state policies. This group was set up when there was no talk of the coronavirus or border skirmishes with China. We had our strategies in place even before these issues, and that’s a very comprehensive and useful document, which we will be able to implement. I am glad that the United States is also thinking about including India as part of its supply chain.
With regard to making India more attractive as a destination for global production, we are conscious of issues such as taxation policies, and difficulty in procuring land and a reliable electricity supply. We are working on these issues. When we make a policy, we take into account the hurdles that people will face. We have been proactive in adapting our policies as we face particular challenges, and we’ll do the same in this case, in order to be part of global supply chains.
India has been a member of G20 since its inception but in the year 2022, we will be hosting the G20 for the first time. We have already started preparations for this, and India will become a part of the troika in the next few months’ time, which includes Saudi Arabia and Italy.
India at the G20
India has been a member of G20 since its inception but in the year 2022, we will be hosting the G20 for the first time. We have already started preparations for this, and India will soon become a part of the troika, which includes Saudi Arabia and Italy.
A key focus of G20 this year has been dealing with COVID. In the first Sherpa meeting that happened in person in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, I raised the issue of making sure that we have an early warning system for pandemics. Since then, we have prepared a good action plan at G20, including with regard to financing. We are working on helping the smaller, indebted countries, so that they will not be burdened with debt as they fight the virus. We are also working on making the global economy grow again. We will be having a summit under the Saudi Presidency on November 21-22.
We are geared up to work on all globally important issues together at the G20. We are committed to working towards strategies to ensure good health and development of women and children, as well as climate and renewable energy production, putting all efforts for growth all over the world, leaving no one behind.