Ted Rogers Business School CEO Outlook Conference: Engaging India

Distinguished panellists, Diane Francis & friends of Ryerson! I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts with all of you and I will focus on public policy aspect of our engagement with India.

Canada has made virtue out of its importance and self-proclaimed values in international arena, and appears to have lost sight of nation’s prosperity interests and how to nurture the means to pursue those interests. Maintaining a meaningful direction and purpose in Canada’s India policy requires strong political leadership and for the Canadian public to know what we want from this engagement and why.

For much of Canada’s past, India policy was at best a minor consideration in life of this nation. Until the Second World War, little mattered to most Canadians except the British connection and tolerably good relationship with United States. The rest of the world including India has been foreign, remote and at the best of passing interest. In post-war era, Canadians carved a role in arranging the peace and collaborating to develop a more functional and a just post-war order around the world. For the last fifty years, its economic interest in trans-national engagement has rarely been in the forefront of its international pursuits.

The Harper government has expressed its dissatisfaction publically about DFAIT officials not wanting to follow his lead and suggested the way to overcome this is through “strong direction”. The recent and unnecessary escalation in Canada India visa row is symbolic of the bureaucratic insensitivity and ineptness, though the outcome of the row has the silver lining that the strongly held “Inadmissibility Policy” may get its due review.

In the absence of clear leadership and capacity to exercise real choices in our deeper trans-national engagement, the default option has been being reactive to the decisions of more powerful international players and thus our course of action has been shaped by circumstances beyond Canada’s control or tackling individual issues as they arise and making best of them. The resulting outcome and engagement has been safer and predictable, but without much control, influence, or credit given to us from other significant international players.

It may sound bit harsh but Canada has shown lack of ambition and strong leadership on India file and it seeks solace in virtues of incrementalism, a strategy that may be politically safe in Canada but that would rarely produce any significant results in our engagement with India. Compare the bi-lateral trade number of Canada and India of less than $5 Billion to $16B between tiny Island country of Singapore and India or $60B between unfriendly neighbours China and India within less than a decade.

The politics and practice of Canadian public policy in engaging with India should be about focusing on those issues that serves the mutuality of interests and management of its relationship with India. We have to have the clarity as how we transition our access in India to influence as our dealing grows with India and how will we maintain such influence. Canada is pitching for inclusion of environment related issues in the trade and investment agreement with India. New Delhi has stoutly resisted the move as India is not going to entertain any attempts of the developed world to include environmental and child labour issues with any trade agreement. We should find other arenas and agreement building opportunities where such issues can be discussed.

One of the biggest assets for Canada is how it can leverage its existing large Indo-Canadian population and its largest growing segment of human capital. How will it leverage its future immigration policy keeping in mind the Canadian economic agenda and ensure that our new immigrants from India are targeted and will be ready to serve the needs of Canada? The Canada India Foundation has made serious commitment by signing a $10 Million endowment with University of Waterloo for starting a Public Policy centre exclusively focused to Canada India Corridor. How can the governments at different levels help bring academia, public policy people, businesses and civil society to pool their resources and create platform for multi-agency collaborative framework for a serious engagement?

In the world of changing economic centre of gravity, it makes perfect sense to move away from the bureaucratic appointment of High Commissioner to India rather send a strong message that Canada is serious in deeply engaging with India by making political appointment for the High commissioner to India. When you house your Trade Commissioner inside heavily fortified embassies- it creates a barrier of access and also makes the Trade Commissioners think like they have some special status and sub-consciously they behave like part of elite diplomatic group rather than individuals who are ready to hustle for business. We suggest embedding individuals from businesses and chamber of commerce on secondment basis with them.

Absence of Canada brand in India is major stumbling block for stronger relationship. India has taken a progressive step of forming India Brand Equity Foundation, a Public Private Partnership between Ministry of Commerce, Corporate India and Confederation of Indian Industries in building a credible global India brand. We should consider similar kind of partnership if we seriously want to move away from the incremental path of engagement with India.

We have seen several government led visits to India but rarely there had been consultative presence of non-bureaucratic individuals. Businesses have been present there in a symbolic way and for the photo-op opportunities. Role of the chamber of commerce and businesses in charting the goal and planning the details of the trade mission is generally seen as undesirable and interfering.

India has numerous provinces that are starving for the partnership and investment and trade but almost all of our trade visits provincially or federally is destined for only major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai and for political reasons to Chandigarh. It is amazing that we are joining the queue and lining-up behind only those places which have lot of attention from all over the world and they are tremendously busy and we have not figured out how we can carve a niche for ourselves in other provinces of India where we will get red carpet welcome and special concessions.

It is conventional wisdom that the lasting partnership starts with strong relationship with public figures, opinion builders, business leaders and civil society leaders. We should be extra careful about the sensitivities and the things that can become irritants for India. The public policy leaders have extra responsibility to be aware of that and our local political considerations and some time the need to appease the fringe elements should not over shadow what is good for Canada in the long run and we don’t give-in to vocal extreme groups just because they are louder. We need to see how the same ethnic issue is relevant in countries like India as some times small immigrant groups tend to over play the issues which may have already died down in the native countries or country has moved on. India is very sensitive with issues of terrorism and matters related to its sovereignty and we should exhibit due consideration and respect for the same.

It would be highly desirable that our various levels of governments consider setting-up public private India fund to encourage our private ventures in India. In a decade or so, India will need expertise and services in all segments of it public and private life similar to what was needed in developed societies as it was growing. It is important that Canadian businesses and institutions establish local footprint at the early stage itself and get acclimatized so that when India needs those specialized goods and services, we are locally present there.

We, the Canadian members of Indian diaspora have arrived at a juncture that Canada can benefit immensely if she leverages New Canadians as it launches its serious engagement with the re-emerging India. What we are urging is that there is a strong need of public private partnership in defining the engagement architecture for India and Canada.

Thank you so much for this opportunity given to me.