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An open letter to India's PM Modi, ST's Asian of the Year

The Straits Times (Singapore)Syed Munir Khasru
December 12, 2014


Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi, congratulations on being named as the Asian of the Year 2014 by The Straits Times.

In the seven months in office, you have limned out in powerful strokes your priorities and style of governance, and now the delivery time begins.

As the Asian of the Year and in the days to come, you will be judged by how you have walked the talk and this letter from a fellow Asian may help to put your thoughts and acts together.

In your East Asia Summit speech last month, you struck the right chord in saying that "Asean's success is an inspiration for broader integration in the Asia-Pacific region".

However, on South Asia, the recent South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit has been yet another talking shop, high on expectations and low on performance. With more than 70 per cent of the population, land and 80 per cent of total GDP of the region, India, for Saarc's sake, should be more magnanimous with its neighbours.

The squabble with Pakistan is perennial, and for you the challenge is how to water down the political inflammation over Kashmir and terrorism through positive economic diplomacy.

Japan and China have scores to settle on territorial issues, but that did not stop them from taking part in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. You will have to lead the South Asian integration from the front and through bold acts and pragmatic concessions.

On the Asia-Pacific, you have been rightly charting your own path instead of playing second fiddle to any other power. The dynamic of the Indo-Pacific augurs a bigger role for India.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees India as a key strategic partner in his scheme of democratic security diamond, while Korea braces itself for inking a nu-clear deal with your country.

Be it Australia or Vietnam, the Asia-Pacific accepts India's rightful place in the evolving scheme of things. As India emerges, China already is an economic powerhouse and all sorts of comparisons are hazarded between the two Asian giants. The Chinese economy is around 11 per cent of the world economy, while India's is less than 3 per cent.

In hard power, China is way ahead of India. Although China is India's largest trading partner, the two neighbours with a long contentious land boundary are competitively building up infrastructure along the border.

In the maritime domain, while India has been rapidly upgrading its naval capabilities, it lags behind China as a sea power. Being militarily "softer" than China, you can have India tap into its substantial soft power where it can lead effectively.

The eminently exportable In-dian culture in the form of Indian spirituality, cuisine or films complements its image of a pluralist democracy promoting unity in diversity. Members of the Indian diaspora occupy leading positions in organisations such as Microsoft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, as Indian multinationals go global.

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize went to an Indian activist, which further boosts the inclusive social vision, while Mylswamy Anna-durai's innovation of cheap space technology shines a spotlight on India as an innovation incubator.

The global multilateral scene is undergoing momentous shifts, as initiatives like New Development Bank of Brics or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) undercut the monopoly of the international development organisations still dominated by the West.

China has been the major player in these initiatives, set to contribute more than 40 per cent to the Brics bank and singlehandedly leading the massive AIIB or Silk Road initiatives. India also has to put its money where its mouth is.

India has set its sights on joining the elite club of nations through getting a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. However, you first have to secure India's stature on her home turf before aiming at global acceptability...

With global leadership comes global responsibility. While India has a global image of non-violence a la Gandhi, its border skirmishes with neighbours and domestic insurgencies do not paint a pretty picture. While China has struck the pro-integration posture by promoting a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, India must not be seen as the true-blue protectionist foot-dragger in the RCEP or WTO negotiations.

Your promise of "Acchhe Din" or "Better Days", which electrified Indian voters, needs to be backed by solid performance. Your neighbourhood-first policy, which began with Bhutan and Nepal tours, has to be carried through to yield results.

Your vision of Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas or "Participation of all, Development for all", applauded by US Secretary of State John Kerry, could be translated into a regional and global vision that champions an inclusive, multilateral and peaceful road to development.

You have the opportunity to forge the right linkages, and time and tide are on your side. What kind of ride you will make out of it, we Asians optimistically await to see.

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