As the annual Raisina Dialogue, run by the Observer Research Foundation with the support of the Foreign Office, concluded its fifth iteration last week, there was no doubt that it has emerged as an important global forum on geopolitics. Many serving ministers and senior officials from around the world as well as former heads of state and government joined in to make the three-day event a stimulating one. Raisina has been successful in drawing participants from countries that are at odds with each other — US, China, Russia, Iran and the Gulf Arabs. This year’s Dialogue saw the participation of a large number of ministers from Europe, an area that has long been neglected in Indian diplomacy. Beyond political leaders and government officials, it also drew technology leaders, media personalities and policy wonks from around the world, providing Delhi an opportunity to lay out its position on controversial moves in Kashmir and on citizenship. More broadly, Raisina is facilitating the development of sustainable intellectual networks between the Indian strategic community and its counterparts in the world.
Part of the reason for Raisina’s success is the growing international interest in India amidst its rapid economic growth in the new millennium and the recognition of its salience in shaping the future of international order. It is also due to the fact that it is based on collaboration between the government and a private think tank. This collaboration has helped shed the dull rigidity that has marked the government’s past engagement with the global strategic community. Raisina emerged out of a recognition five years ago that Delhi did not have effective international platforms of its own despite the globalisation of India’s economy — trade now contributes nearly 40 per cent of India’s GDP. India is at once more influential in world affairs as well as more susceptible to external developments. But its policy discourse appeared stuck in the past. Raisina was part of the strategy to recalibrate that discourse and discard the traditional bureaucratic pretence that the government knows best.
Along with the Raisina Dialogue, the MEA had helped launch two other international forums — one on technology policy in Bengaluru and another on business in Mumbai. Delhi needs to strengthen those two forums. It also needs a separate forum focused on India’s immediate neighbourhood. Delhi needs to devote a lot more attention to engaging the strategic and economic elites in the Subcontinent to make a success of its declared policy that puts the “neighbourhood first”. While government-supported forums like Raisina are welcome, Delhi needs to make it easier for the civil society groups to develop trans-border and international conversations. Successive governments in recent decades have tightened the visa restrictions for conferences and made it harder to obtain official clearances to host such events. Only a genuine liberalisation of these rules will help India realise the full potential of its global engagement.