A trailblazing diplomat now turned into an astute statesman and politician with his effortless wit, humour and charisma. He has also become a youth icon for every young minded Indian at home and abroad, with him at the helm of Indian’s foreign policy. We can all be rest assured that Bharat will continue to scale new heights. Here, we catch the Union Minister for External Affairs, Dr. S Jaishankar, in conversation with BJP MP, Tejasvi Surya, on the occasion of the Minister’s book release, “Why Bharat Matters”.
Tejasvi Surya: I have with me a very interesting book that Dr. S Jaishankar has authored, which is also very interestingly titled Why Bharat Matters.
This book is of interest to any young person who is interested in world affairs. There is economics in this, geopolitics, and also, interestingly, Ramayana in this, because most of the episodes of current geopolitics, the developments in the world theatre, that you describe, there’s an allegorical reference that you make to episodes from the Ramayana. I have a twofold question, rather because your previous book was titled The India Way, and the new book is Why Bharat Matters. So, why did you make the new book Bharat? What is the significance of the change in the connotation? And second, what is the significance of the allegorical references to Ramayana and geopolitics in this book?
Dr. S Jaishankar: You know, I think one of the reasons why I shifted from the ‘India Way’ to ‘Why Bharat Matters’ is actually what has happened to all of us in the last five years. In the last five years, we have become much more self-confident, much more self-aware, much more impactful on the world. We have done other things, which have caught the attention of the world, like the landing of the Chandrayan at a particularly difficult part of the world.
And, you know my first book had a chapter on the Mahabharat, which a lot of people liked. Nobody needs to teach you this. You, you grow up with it. When you have something like an epic, a great epic, each one of us sees some value in it. For me, as someone dealing with diplomacy, I looked or I reimagined it, through the lens of world affairs, through diplomacy, through statecraft.
And in the case of Hanuman, he was cursed to be forgetful. And as he actually does more and more, he discovers his strength. And that, I think, is what is happening with us today. We are discovering ourselves. And because we are discovering ourselves, that is why I use the word Bharat.
Tejasvi Surya: The other chapter in the book that I personally thought of as very important for a lay audience, is this chapter that you title, foreign policy and you. Could you expound more on how a common Indian man must invest himself and see foreign policy?
Dr. S Jaishankar: There are today roughly 34 million Indians and people of Indian origin who live across the world, roughly half are our nationals, and roughly half are not. A very large part of them are blue collar workers. By the way, a very large part of them are students. Is it not the basic duty of a state, of a country, of a government to look after its citizens? There must be you know, in fairness for efficiency for scale, there must be a system by which people in distress outside, people in need outside, can turn to the government. This is today the expectation of the average person. It could even be any one of you tomorrow as a tourist. How do we stand by our people? A large part of what we do, when we speak of an aspirational world, it is important for us to respond to the daily requirements, the legitimate expectations of our citizens.
Tejasvi Surya: So, I think the sense of security that you spoke of is something that the common Indian is experiencing every day. And I think that sense of a renewed security in your government is something that has been a hallmark of what you call in your book, the Modi Era diplomacy. So, can you explain for us a few characteristics of what is this Modi Era diplomacy, and how is the Modi era diplomacy different from what was practiced in the pre-Modi era?
Dr. S Jaishankar: Partly, I think a new way of thinking. Say, for example, to take our neighbourhood and make them partners, not competitors; neighbours who benefit from what you are doing. Our neighbours today associate India with education, with health, with aid.
We are today spreading our wings. We are making a difference to the world. And the world actually wants a country, a power like us today to balance out what are the established powers. And most important at the big league, we are today holding our own. There isn’t a debate in the world in which today we are not putting out our idea. That is the difference.
Tejasvi Surya: And, and I think this renewed voice that India has found at a global stage is also reflecting in the way that we are dealing with our immediate neighbourhood, which also includes China. And there’s an elaborate chapter in the book titled ‘dealing with China’. So, my understanding is that, that a visible shift that has taken place post 2014, the way we are dealing with China, is that we are dealing with a more realistic perspective than any romantic ideas or idealistic ideas about how it should be.
Dr. S Jaishankar: Two comments. One, in politics it’s natural that everybody will try to do, how do the competitors, in terms of the strength of what they say. So, I think people should always test words against record, against actions. I’ve used two examples. One who prepared, who actually prepared on the border? Now, on the border you know, there was a very dominant school of thought till 2014, saying, if you leave your borders facing China, unprepared and undeveloped, that’s the best defense you can have.
Now, when you actually get into crunch time, what happens? You have to send your troops up there. Now, if you had decided that you’re not going to develop the border, or even if you’re going to develop it, very frankly, your heart was not in it.
Look at the cold facts today, the border development budget per year has gone up roughly from about 3,500 crores a year to almost 15,000 crores per year. If you look at the speed of road building, the tunneling, the bridging, we are actually looking at two x, three x, four x improvements.
If today we have been able to send and maintain troops out there, which we have done in those large numbers since 2020, it was only possible because actually on the ground, you made a difference. Now, that’s on the border.
I would say, look at something much more basic. You know, all of us today are troubled by the fact that there’s a big trade deficit with China. You know, why are we being flooded with these Chinese goods? The best way of not being flooded with Chinese goods is to produce Indian goods. So, to produce Indian goods, what should you do? You should first push for Make in India. Now, if the stand is, oh, Make in India is not possible. If you say, look, let’s assume, let’s all make it easier to do business. But if our policy is making it harder to do business, and environmental clearances were actually practiced as a tool to, to actually slow down industrialization in this country,
So, I would say, you know, where, where this whole China debate is concerned there are, there is a real school, there is a much more romantic fatalist, sometimes I would say even complicit school. I think there’s been this constant debate, and it’s not a new debate.
At the end of the day, I would say it is very important, especially if you have the responsibility for the security of your country to be very hardheaded about it, to be very practical.
Tejasvi Surya: You also make very insightful observations about the present and the future. And one of that is regarding the narrative battles that we need to fight in today’s digital media age. And also, the challenge that comes in a conflict zone, or a war theatre where multinational companies with budgets which are, which are even higher than GDPs of certain countries also come into play. So, these two threats that you have amongst the many that you have highlighted are something that I think we should spend some time discussing. So where do you see in the coming years in more digitized, more globalized space, the influence of these MNC, these tech giants? How are they going to play a role in everyday lives of people, especially in times of conflict and to the narrative battles? We see the New York Times commenting about India, you see some other agency coming out with a survey and giving India a much lower ranking in the democracy index than Pakistan.
Dr. S Jaishankar: In fact, on the press freedom, I think they gave us a lower ranking than Afghanistan. But look, I think, the battle of narratives is something we should expect, because in different ways, we are defying the entrenched narrative. It’s happening in different domains. It happens in politics, it happens even in business. When they rate a country, you know, you will find out that the basis of how judgments are made are often very, very subjective. So, what we have seen, and this is something that has been steadily building up over the last 10 years, I expect it to reach a crescendo in the first six months of this year.
And as elections come closer. If it looks like it’s going in a way which the narrative drivers don’t like, they will actually start to attack the process. Now, we have seen that before. They will attack the Supreme Court, they’ll attack the Election Commission, they will attack the EVMs. I mean, we’ve got to figure this out, and we have to fight back. So, I don’t think we need to keep taking it. I think we need to call them out.
The narrative context on the technology issue. I think it’s far more complex because you have the market-based economies today, you have these big giants.
Tejasvi Surya: There’s one interesting line that you write in the book, which caught my excitement. The whole country, of course, is waiting for the 22nd of January for the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. And so, in the book, you write that this excitement is not something that just the Bhartiya’s are sharing, but this is also a matter of excitement deep in South Korea, in Southeast Asia. So, if you could expound on how the construction of the Ram Mandir is being seen from outside of India.
Dr. S Jaishankar: You know I think it’s important especially for young people who travel, and those of you who travel abroad, to go to those places where our cultural imprint historically has been very, very strong, then you will realise that what is happening in India is not something which is of interest or limited to us; that other societies are following a lot of this. In fact, once you start moving eastwards, you can see actually a very, very strong cultural influence. I would say on 22nd of January that a lot of people across the world will be looking at what’s happening in our country.