Sonia Gandhi
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Sonia Gandhi

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen Let me first of all congratulate the Hindustan Times for organizing this conclave.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2003 02:41 IST

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me first of all congratulate the Hindustan Times for organizing this conclave.

The theme of this get-together has perennial relevance. But in the current circumstances, the timing could not have been more apt.

The winds of peace and goodwill are once again blowing in our region. Friendship is in the air. Yet another new beginning appears to be on the horizon.

It is easy to be cynical. It is natural to be cautious.

But we must hope that this phase is longer-lasting and will set the stage for a new future for South Asia, a future which over a billion and a quarter people are entitled to.

Regional Challenges

I have been asked to speak on the Indian Roadmap. Before I do so, let me briefly go over some of the more crucial challenges that confront us collectively in this region.

Our societies are rich tapestries, tapestries that reflect a long tradition of syncretism.

The wrap and weft of our social fabric, our collective DNA as it were, is composed of many religions, languages, ethnic groups, many cultures living with each other. They derive support and sustenance from each other. They contribute to and enrich each other.

The recent past may have kept us apart but we have a common future.

We have to rediscover the well-springs of reconciliation both within our societies and across our political borders.

The fundamental task we face is to create an all-inclusive social architecture in which there is no place for bigotry, for intolerance, for obscurantism of any kind. Once when asked by Andre Malraux what his greatest challenge was, Jawahdrlal Nehru replied and I quote: "To build a just society by just means and to establish a secular state in a religious society". Unquote. That challenge is very much before us today.

And how will this architecture come about?

It will come about through representative, liberal democracy.

It will result from economic development that is both efficient and equitable.

It will be the outcome of respecting social diversity.

And it will emerge from a sustained dialogue across different divides.

Our nation-states have been far too centralized. That had a logic at a particular point of time over half a century ago. Today, what we need is a multi-tiered democracy, an empowered and decentralized democracy. There is no other system which is both representative and durable, both accountable and transparent.

Our economies have performed well in recent times. Hut not well enough to deal with the huge backlog of poverty, malnutrition, disease and unemployment. There is no alternative to faster economic growth. There is no alternative to an effective role for the state in this transformation.

Our social systems have been subject to many fissures. The feeling of alienation has grown. Violence has become endemic in many parts. Within the parameters of political unity and territorial integrity, what is needed is a sensitive approach to heal wounds. The profound consequences of migration, both within and across our countries, have to be dealt with humanely.

Our polities are filled with discord and the areas of agreement have shrunk. What is now needed is a determined search for the common ground, a serious pursuit of a consensus that allows us to move ahead, even while having differences.

Our societies must have institutions for dialogue, a dialogue that comes to terms with our past, a dialogue that provides a framework for living in the present and realizing the future.

India's Special Role

What about India's own contribution? What would be the configuration of our ICBMs -Indian Confidence-building Measures, I hasten to add?

India has an important role to play. Further, it must play a consistent role, a role that is always sensitive to the needs and concerns of its neighbours.

At the same time, I believe we have every right to expect that our neighbours will not allow themselves to become sanctuaries for those who unleash their deadly tools of terror against innocent men, women and children in our country. Indeed, as neighbours all of us must ensure that our territories are not havens for those who seek legitimacy through violence.

The demographic and physical size of India invites a degree of apprehension. But that need not be so if India has a positive agenda that emphasizes mutually beneficial outcomes.

We have consistently been in favour of engaging constructively with Pakistan on all issues under the Shimla Agreement and subsequent accords. That we can work together for the common good in spite of all vicissitudes is revealed by the durability of the 1960 lndus Waters

India, China and Pakistan Should evolve a credible and transparent mechanism to manage the consequences of a nuclear South Asia.

The huge Eastern Himalayan river basin needs to be developed quickly by India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

A South Asian Free Trade Area ought to be in place by 2005 and an economic community by the middle of the next decade.

India and Bangladesh should establish a bilateral framework for closer cooperation as well as a regional one that embraces Myanmar, Thailand and provinces of China.

We share the hopes and desires of Sri Lanka that its ethnic strife comes to an end and an agreed power-sharing and devolution arrangement is put in place soon.

The unique ecology 0f the Maldives has to be preserved and protected.

Indian can provide an impetus to improving and expanding road, rail and air connectivity in the entire region and in developing cross-country tourism circuits.

India can take the initiative in sharing its considerable expertise in area like IT and biotechnology to improve governance and transform agriculture on which our shared prosperity rests.

India must continue to pursue closer political and economic toes with China as it has done since 1988. While this has a logic of its own, a deeper Sino-Indian relationship has a positive impact on our immediate neighbourhood.

Most of all, India has to remain an outstanding exemplar of an open liberal, pluralistic democracy, committed to secular values, committed to combating religious fundamentalism of all kinds, committed to preserving and protecting its composite heritage. We must fight those forces that seek to use regional tension to polarize our own society.

When I say India play an important role, it is not just a role for the government of India or even for some of our state governments. Institutions of civil society--like NGOs, universities, think tanks, hospitals, media, professional associations, industrialists, sports bodies--also have a leadership role to play. Just think of the tremendous outpouring of sympathy that accompanied Noor Fatima's journey from Lahore to Bangalore in search of a new life.

Over time, why can't we, for instance, conceive of a South Asian Parliament as a permanent deliberative body on issues of regional concern and importance. Such a body could expand the perspective on South Asia among all our countries. Incidentally, I should mention here this was a little-noticed idea contained in our election manifesto for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.


And what about SAARC?

The posturing at SAARC hits the headlines. But not enough credit is given to the initiatives that have been taken.

Eleven summits have been held in the past thirteen years and the twelfth is to be held soon in Islamabad. Each of the Summit Declarations is a mission statement in itself. If implemented with a single-minded sense of collective purpose, they can transform our region.

SAARC regional centers in crucial areas like weather forecasting and health have been established.

A SAARC food security reserve has been built up.

SAARC Conventions in critical areas like prostitution, child welfare and narcotics control have been adopted.

SAARC networks have been created in diverse fields like economic research, media, law, accountancy, management, town planning and in trade and business.

Independent Commissions on Poverty Alleviation have been set up. Groups of Wise Men (alas, no wise women, as yet!!) have been mobilized.

But I have to admit that SAARC is not given the same importance by all of us as we accord to other bilateral, regional and international bodies. Not all of this is of India's making but the need for a whole new mindset on SAARC in our country cannot be denied. As a beginning why should India not take a bold step to substantially increase the core capital base of the South Asia Development Fund that now stands at a paltry $ 6 million.

Beyond SAARC

Looking beyond SAARC, South Asia's unique culture and geography give it a special trans-regional positioning as well. It is linked to West Asia in many ways. It has been associated intimately with central Asia. It is now building new partnerships in East Asia. From every point of view--investment, trade, energy, labour markets--these linkages must be deepened. Collaboration with ASEAN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Gulf Cooperation Council must be essential on security-related issues. The time may also have come to think in terms of a South Asian Security Forum.


May I say a few words on the gifted and talented sub-continental Diaspora that has come into prominence in recent years in many countries. Their achievements are a source of pride for all of us.

This Diaspora can be a great force for good, for building bridges.

But there is a dark side to this as well -- we all know how dangerous long-distance, offshore nationalism can be.

We have experience of both the positive and the negative impact of overseas communities on domestic politics and social relations.

Our attempt must be to proliferate the positive and take concentrated steps to ensure that we are not diverted by the negative. The real hope lies in the new generation of the diaspora that is in a better position to free itself from the shackles of the past and become the harbinger of anew South Asia.

The Role of the World Community

Is there a role for the international community to help us reap the peace dividend?

Most decidedly yes, even though the primary responsibility remains ours.

We need a system of globalisation that is sensitive to the great dependence of our countries on agriculture. This system has to be responsive to the huge demands we face to create productive jobs year after year. It must also mitigate the risks inherent in the process of international integration.

We need international financing of critical cross-country infrastructure projects.

While trade will be an engine of growth, there will still be need for development assistance in vital areas like health and the environment.

Most of all, we need the world community to appreciate the extraordinary complexity and depth of the challenges we confront.

Final Words

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is true that we have seen many a dawn abruptly fade away.

It is true that we have seen many a hope raised, only to have it suddenly evaporate.

But persist and persevere we must. We cannot remain content with being cartographers preparing road maps. We should be navigators and sailors ready to weather every storm and tempest along the way to our destination.

The future beckons.

A new world awaits.

The peace dividend calls out.

First Published: Dec 13, 2003 15:28 IST