Column: India in a leadership role

Updated: Aug 5 2014, 06:56am hrs
To be attentive to history is to be on the lookout for pivotal moments, and in Indias economic and geopolitical context, 2014 would most likely stand out as a hugely pivotal time. With the financial crisis hardly over or even continuingdepending on how optimistic or pessimistic our outlook isthe West has turned its attention towards itself. It isnt focussed much on South East Asia, largely defining Indias problems as structural and those of our neighbours, like Nepal, as poverty-related. These are traditionally the lowest station of the developed Wests policy priorities. Western Europe, especially the UK, which had colonised this region a century ago, has reoriented its focus onto itself. The only reason the developed world has any interest in this part of the globe, especially India, is that it sees the latter as large, capital-starved markets with English-speaking, well-educated professionals who would nonetheless be satisfied being paid bargain-basement wages by the standards of the West.

The US, apart from concentrating on its economic problems by essentially printing dollars, has its focus dominated by security. It is investing its energy and resources in a series of interventions in the greater Middle East, leading to a sequence of costly and inconclusive wars in the Islamic world.

In contrast, following the May 2014 general elections, our economic progress is beginning to rev up, and the new BJP government is able to survey the world, including its neighbours, with the fresh eyes that emergence from a long period of relative slumber brings. The Indian leadership, under Narendra Modi, opportunely recognises that India needs to assume the leadership position in the region that rightfully belongs to us, as was evident in the new governments swearing-in ceremony becoming a mini-Saarc event. For India to hold its own in the global economy, like it did while vetoing the WTO agreement irrespective of the latters merits, it has to start donning a leadership role in the South East Asian region. Modi seems to be committed to a policy known simply as reaching out and has selected our immediate neighbours to implement this. As they say in the corporate world, effective leaders begin their work with their immediate colleagues. After getting a red-carpet welcome in neighbouring Bhutan last monthhis first port of callModi seems to have prioritised the South Asian neighbourhood over powerful Western countries, and rightly so.

It is under this new economic-geopolitical context that we need to assess Indias strategy in emerging as a stronger leader in the region. Modis recent visit to Nepal may seem an insignificant trip to a small country, but it is a harbinger of a greater leadership role for India in the region and eventually in the global geo-political arena. Like the US is intervening in the Middle East for its security purposes, we need to engage with our neighbours for our own well-being and security. For instance, in the case of Nepal, its so-called demographic dividend, over the next few years, will place most of the countrys population in the most productive,

youthful, and frantically growing phase of life. The youth in Nepal need to be channeled well for our own good. The young populace in Nepal resemble less and lessthe peasant multitudes of the past. Instead, they are urban and highly globalised in terms of culture, thanks to the proliferation of media and internet. The youth is increasingly moving away from peasantry to education, in part because better education entails a more aspirational urban lifestyle. The thirst for education can be seen in United Nations data that show enrolment in secondary schools in Nepal jumped 48% in the last decade; higher-education rates grew 80%, albeit from a small base.A decade back these numbers were much lower and the best option for the youth was to head to India, as in the case of Jeet Bahadur, a Nepalese youth, whom Modi mentored in a low-profile way for 16 years. For such youth to not get lost to their parents, and from Indias perspective, not to consume jobs and resources in India, or more sinisterly, contribute to the crime rate of our cities, it is important to invest wisely in our neighbours. A well-educated, career-driven, young demography in Nepal means a safer neighbourhood for us. It is always wise and sagacious to spend money on educating the youth than on buying ammunition against them. Leadership doesnt mean burying our heads in sand, like the previous Manmohan Singh government did, and imagining that what happens around us does not bother us. As in the case with good leaders in the corporate world, political leadership entails investing in the greater good today to reap welfare returns in future. As a responsible leader in the region, Indias job is to mentor the small neighbouring countries around us, which are a bunch of live wires, and see that they are well-grounded.

K VaidyaNathan

The author is Assistant Professor in Residence, School of Business, University of Connecticut-Stamford