India Ideas Conclave 2016

~ By Prasanna Karthik R

Ideas are central human actions, and ideas are what strengthen any human institution.The institution of democracy is no exception to this rule. The churning of new ideas and revisiting old ideas is vital for maintaining a progressive vibrancy in our society. It is with this objective that India Foundation conceived the India Ideas Conclave, to bring together people with different perspectives, engaging with an open mind in meaningful discussions and debates.

The third edition of India Ideas Conclave happened between the 4th and 6th of November in Goa. The event had about 300 guests from different professions, with a proven track record of intellectual contributions to various spheres of national importance, handpicked as delegates. The Conclave also had a list of illustrious speakers, from a wide range of professions, geographies, faiths, and ideological affiliations; at the end of the day, India’s diversity lends it a strategic soft power advantage.

Given the current churning in the Indian society caused due to discarding of old ideas that had limited our growth, embracing of new ideas that can leap frog our development, and the consequent increase in the engagement of various sections of the society in shaping the national narrative, the theme of this edition of the Conclave was aptly chosen to be – ‘India at 70 – Democracy, Development & Dissent.’

Inaugural Session & Keynote Address:

The inaugural session was chaired by Suresh Prabhu, Union Minister for Railways. Suresh Prabhu began by talking about the conception of the idea of the Conclave and how it has evolved over last three editions. He spoke about various issues currently plaguing the world and how democratic setup could be an answer to them. He said that the role of dissent is integral to democracy, but it isn’t the sole purpose. He also spoke about the role of parliament in resolving any issues in the democracy, and encouraged the audience to participate in the upcoming discussions.

The other speakers for the inaugural session where Swami Tejomayanda, the Global Head of Chinmaya Mission Worldwide, and Sher Bahadur Deuba, former Prime Minister of Nepal. Swami Tejomayanada argued that all types of governance models, dictatorial and democratic, have had their share of successes and failures and thus, no system is fool-proof, and stressed that the idea of governance should not be to please others or self but to think what is right and what is good for all.Impressing upon the wisdom of the scriptures for understanding various aspects of society, he declared the conference open. Sher Bahadur Deuba,spoke about the Indo-Nepalese relations and the close ties between both the countries in terms of culture, language, religion and fraternity.

The key note speech was delivered by Amit Shah, the National President of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP President commenced his speech by noting that democracy inherently covers development and dissent, and there was no need to use the three words democracy, development and dissent explicitly. He further expressed that democratic ideals have existed in India since long, and asked the audience to evaluate where other nations that won independence along with India are currently standing in comparison with us. In his concluding remarks, Amit Shah pointed out that democracy and development aren’t two different things, and added that one must be free to say anything including criticism of the Prime Minister or ruling dispensation, but speaking against the nation can’t be camouflaged as freedom of expression and will not be acceptable.   

The key note speech was followed by a video recorded speech of HH Dalai Lama, who called himself a ‘son of India,’ as India has nurtured him both physically and spiritually. HH Dalai Lama called upon spiritual leaders to spread this message to the masses and stressed on getting rid of any element of feudal societies—which is distinct from the real message of dharma—and bringing in true democracy.

Plenary Discussion I: Defence at 70

The session was chaired by Gen. VP Malik (former Chief of Indian Army), Amb. Daniel Carmon (Israeli Ambassador to India), Pratyush Kumar (President of Boeing India), and Amb. Arun Kumar Singh (former Indian Ambassador to US), as speakers.

Gen. Malik stated that defence is an important element in today’s India, and that the report card of Indian Defence establishment is more positive than negative. He spoke about the success of the Indian Army, and its failure in 1962 due to the ill-conceived policy of forward deployment done during that period. Daniel Carmon, talked about the three D’s that Israel follows as core principles- Democracy, Development, Defence, besides highlighting 25 years of India-Israel diplomatic partnership.

Dr. Pratyush Kumar, questioned why even after 70 years, India carries the moniker of the largest importer of defence, and stressed on how India can build strategic self-reliance and create globally competitive industrial base in the defence sector. Arun K Singh, began by saying that political and military aspects not only have an impact on defence but also influence the nature of international partnerships. He spoke about India’s four critical partners namely, Russia, Israel, France and US.

Plenary II: Governance at 70

Thesession was chaired by Jayant Sinha (Minister of State, Ministry of Civil Aviation), and had Baijayant Jay Panda (MP Biju Janata Dal), HimantaBiswaSarma (Finance Minister, Government of Assam), Rajeev Chandrasekhar (MP, Independent), A Surya Prakash (Chairman, PrasarBharati), and Archana Chitnis (Minister of Women and Child Development, Government of Madhya Pradesh).

Jayant Sinha welcomed the distinguished speakers and went on to ask four basic questions, for the speakers to deliberate upon:

  1. Is the governance system embedded in our country’s ethos?
  2. Is there a need to look at the balance between legislative and judiciary in the country?
  3. How is the governance system functioning at State and Local levels in the country?
  4. Are the political parties in the country functioning optimally?

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, spoke in his opening remarks about dual weaknesses of the public systems in the country- being opaque and a closed system on one hand, while being inefficient in handling the public finances on the other. He said that we should reach swarajya to have a governance system which is embedded in our country’s ethos. Baijayant Panda, admitted that our governance system is working, but not well and hence there is more scope for improvement. He also stressed on the fact that India has inherited a centralized governance system and therefore along with fiscal devolution, structural reforms are needed for decentralization of power.

Surya Prakash, gave a very lucid presentation regarding the history of Parliamentary System in the country. He gave a glimpse of the parliamentary changes from 1952 to 2014 in terms of political and occupational democratization of the parliament, and questioned the elected representatives for their obsession with privileges and absenteeism in parliament. Archana Chitnis, remarked that the politicians are not the rulers but the custodians or trustees of the power entrusted by the citizens, and went on to state that it took many years for the governments to say ‘Skill India,’‘Startup India,’ ‘Stand Up India’ which should have been adopted into policy making much earlier after independence.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, remarked that while the constitution framework is absolutely in tune with our cultural ethos, the main challenge for our generation is in protecting and preserving our ethos amid growing western influences.He further added that time has come to create a situation where every citizen in the country, irrespective of the geographic location, can have equitable access to resources for development.

Plenary III: India Global at 70

The session was chaired by MJ Akbar (MoS, Ministry of External Affairs), and had Daniel Twining (Director and Senior Fellow at German Marshall Fund), Dr. Patrick French (Writer & Historian), Prof. Walter K Andersen (John Hopkins University), Amb James Tien (Trade Representative of Tiawan to India), as speakers.

MJ Akbar spoke about the pertinent need to have a ‘transformative thinking’ in context of India’s Foreign Policy. Describing the theme of India’s Foreign Policy under PM Modi he stated the theme to be – ‘Power of Balance’ – which allows a nation like India having balanced relations with nations from across the globe.

Daniel Twining started his remarks by stating that the accelerating Indo-US relations shall be the central driver for global peace and prosperity in the 21st century. He pointed out the synergy between India and US as both nations oppose terrorism, believe in an open plural community, a free society, and an open world.

Dr Patrick French described his pessimism regarding the bleak prevailing global scenario, ranging from US elections, preparations of baltic countries against Russian invasion, Brexit referendum, civil and proxy wars in West Asia etc. He also cautioned about the increasing pollution levels in the Capital New Delhi and across the country serving as a detriment in future growth prospects of the nation.

Prof Walter Anderson dispelled the legacy notions which suspected India to not last for 70 years as a united nation or remain democratic for such a tenure. The key question raised by Prof Anderson is that whether India can leverage the geopolitical advantage to present and play a considerable role in presenting a robust global strategic vision.

Ambassador James Tienstated that with the ascent of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy, the relations between India and Taiwan have significantly accelerated, and he expressed hope that with the interlinking of ‘Southbound policy’ of Taiwan and ‘Act East’ policy of India, both nations can immensely leverage their resources for creating shared prosperity.

Plenary IV: Education in India at 70

The session was chaired by Prof. Sunaina Singh (Vice Chancellor, EFLU, Hydrabad), and had Prof. Harsh V Pant (Professor of International Relations, Kings College), Prof. M Jagadesh Kumar (Vice Chancelleor, JNU), TV Mohandas Pai (Educationist and Former Member of Board, Infosys), and Ratin Roy (Director, NIPFP).

Prof. Singh traced the education system in India to over 5000 years and said that the present education system is “a legacy we’ve inherited from our colonial past.” She further said that the education system per se needs to be “harnessed to the Indian reality” and that there is a need to plan accordingly for the next 20 to 25 years.

Ratin Roy expressed his surprise that while India produces CEOs for global corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Pepsi etc., the ability to produce people to run India’s public service institutions is dismal. He explained the insufficiency of professionals such as educators, doctors, engineers, etc. to serve the entire population of India, and the disconnect of the students with scholars and creative thinkers and involvement in protests and demonstrations.

Prof. Jagadesh Kumar started by saying that all his life as a Professor at IIT he thought about electronics and integrated circuits but since he joined JNU ten months ago, he has been hearing only about freedom of expression, dissent, strikes, dharnas and gheraos. He stressed on the importance of educational institutions in nurturing human resources and concluded by quoting Mahatma Gandhi – “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Prof.Pant spoke about the lack of research and scholarship in our universities, and stressed that knowledge is going to play the key role in determining who will be the leaders of the 21st century. Further expressing his dismay at the present state of Indian education system, he lamented that, “we are staring at an intellectually barren landscape in our universities.”

Mohandas Pai highlighted the three global trends that are profoundly impacting education: technology changing the face of job market, large number of jobs that are about to become obsolete, and the nature of markets to be altered forever. He said that globalization has changed the way we perceive national boundaries, but education has not progressed at the same pace. Conclusively, he said our universities must embrace technology as it has fundamentally altered how we create and consume knowledge.

Plenary V: Dissent at 70

The session was chaired by Swapan Dasgupta (RS MP), and had Roopa Ganguly (RS MP), Shekhar Gupta (Senior Journalist), Ashok Malik (Senior Journalist), Vivek Agnihotri (Film Maker), and Aatish Taseer (writer and journalist) as speakers.

Swapan Dasgupta, spoke about media reports on how India is facing an emergency like situation in today’s times, and how over the past two years there has been a lot of hue and cry about the space of dissent being truncated. He said such malicious reporting has greater implications as when a false message is repeated frequently, it becomes a truth. He said that there are different types of dissenters in India and labelling and shutting down doors on them or celebrating them are not binary options. Roopa Ganguly, spoke about various issues that people face today – from poor infrastructure in North East to Triple Talaq. She also spoke on the current situation in Bengal and expressed displeasure over how the ruling party government oppresses opposition voices.

Shekha Gupta, started his presentation saying that there are mainly two kinds of dissent – one that we see in totalitarian countries and the one that we see in democratic societies. He said that he does not agree with Government’s decision to ban NDTV for a day but he thinks that the current government is handling the economic situation in the country better than the previous dispensation.

Shri. Malik started by comparing dissent and disagreement. Then he went on to say that dissent in one sphere could be counter-dissent in another sphere. He then stated that the newspaper Telegraph which had carried strong remarks against BJP Government at the Centre and Trinamool Congress Government in Bengal has suddenly stopped carrying strong comments against Bengal Government.

Vivek Agnihotri, talked about how the topic of dissent is a very contentious one. He objected to the view that ‘my dissent is better than yours’.  Aatish Taseer, shared his attachment with India, and spoke about cultural dissent and Mc Caulay’s intentions to introduce English based education system in pre-Independent India.

Panel discussion on nature of Nationalist Narrative

The discussion was chaired by Ashok Chowgule, and had Tavleen Singh (Senior Journalist and Author), Dr.David Frawley (Teacher of Vedanta), Lalitha Kumar Mangalam (Chairman, National Commission for Women), Shankar Saran (Professor, NCERT), Madhu Kishwar (Maulana Azad National Professor, ICSSR).

Ashok Chowgule started by highlighting the importance of nationalist narrative, and how it impacted the vote share of BJP in 2014 general elections. Tavleen Singh, asserted that Nationalism should be instilled from and by the people themselves and not be defined by politicians. She called for seizing the narrative away from politicians and bringing it back to the people.

Dr. Frawley affirmed that India is not just a modern state like US or some European nations, and that it has around 5000 years old legacy. He further added that post-independence, this narrative was deconstructed by the colonial minds, and what is needed today is a national identity and not a regional one as often represented by regional political parties etc. Lalitha Kumarmangalam highlighted the need for inculcating basic civic duty among Indian citizens especially with reference to respect for women in the society. She spoke about the need for beginning the change right from home and for inculcating correct values among the children in society.

Shankar Sharan began his presentation by stating that nationalism as a concept is not a very old subject and it originated only about 250-300 years ago. Quoting from the definition given by   Aurobindo 100 years ago, he said, “Nationalism is the faith. Sanatan Dharma is the only true nationalism.” He closed his remarks by stating that India must be called a civilizational state. Madhu Kishwar, opened her remarks by explaining how Stalinist philosophy is propagated in the guise of human rights, subaltern and minority studies. She targeted the left discourse by pointing out that multi ethnic and multi-cultural is not new to India, where people breathe differences.

Panel Discussion on Evolution, Impact and Role of Social Media

The session was chaired by Sadanand Dhume (Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute), and has Rupa Subramanya (Economist and Author), Shefali Vaidya (Consulting Editor, Media Vidya), Nistula Hebbar (Political Editor, The Hindu), Kanchan Gupta (Commissioning Editor and Commentator, ABP News) as speakers.

Sadanand Dhume, started the session by mentioning that his Tweet, “Freedom of expression is doing fine. It is monopoly of expression under threat,”got disproportionately high amount of traction. He further argued that monopoly in religion, markets and bureaucracy is being challenged by social media. Rupa Subramanya, began by sharing her experience with social media. She told that she realised the power of social media in the lead up to 2014 General Elections and that social media challenges biases, forces to question status-quo, and pushes to come out of the comfort zone.

Shefali Vaidya, shared her personal story and how her blogs got traction throughout Twitter. She compared the narrative of Good Dissent vs Bad Dissent to Good Taliban vs Bad Taliban. She also told that today’s social media users are not just passive consumers but active contributors. Nistula Hebbar, said she started using social media as a tool for her book promotion, but took cognizance of its significance in 2014 general elections, when she felt that the campaign was as much online as on-ground. She admitted that the mainstream media has taken cognizance of social media and now online articles are drafted differently than that of print media.

Kanchan Gupta started-off by remarking that Twitter wasn’t meant for what it is being used for now. Social media will have to build its credibility, if it were to substitute the mainstream media. Media in India today is pretty much homogenous in approach and content, and that mainstream media has largely co-opted social media.

Panel Discussion on Youth Perspectives

The session was chaired by Sanjeev Sanyal (author and historian) and had Swadesh Singh (National Vice President, BJYM), HindolSengupta(Editor at Large, Fortune India), Shubhrastha (Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation), and Nupur Sharma (Advocate and BJP Politician).

Swadesh Singh, initiated his remarks by pointing out that when we talk of youth, we shouldn’t lose focus and must talk of every section and class of youth. Talking about the aspirations of a Dalit Rural Uneducated girl he said that all what she needs in life is a good quality of life and respect from the society.

HindolSenguptaemphasised on the need to dissent against three prevailing truths in the society: dissent against wrongful handing out of labels and tags, dissent against distortion of history, dissent against blocking access to alternative discourses on national stage.

Shubhrastha, began her remarks by stating the ‘Representation Deficit’ of the youth in the sphere of political and governmental decision making, including the Parliament. She talked about the need for creation of platform which can be used to channelize the energies of youth into more constructive activities for the benefit of the nation.

Nomesh Bolia, talked about the significant hunger among the youth to contribute. He went on to highlight the lack of platforms where the youth can contribute especially in the field of policy making.

Nupur Sharma, tried to argue that much of the dissent these days is manufactured and is aimed at reaping political gains.

In addition to the sessions detailed above, the conclave had the following accomplished individuals making presentations on various topics:

  1. Tarek Fatah – Author & Columnist
  2. DattatreyaHosabale–Sah-Sarkaryavah, RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh
  3. Mahmood Madani – Islamic Scholar & Politician
  4. Shaida Mohammad Abdali–Ambassador of Afghanistan to India
  5. Sajad Lone–Minister, Government of Jammu & Kashmir
  6. AroonPurie – Founder-publisher and editor-in-chief of India Today
  7. LobsangSangey–Chief Executive of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile
  8. TaslimaNasreen–Writer, secular humanist and human rights activist
  9. Arnab Goswami– Senior Journalist & former Editor in Chief of Times Now

The evening of day two of the conclave also had noted singer Mohit Chouhan casting his magic over the delegates, who had gathered on the sea shore for a sumptuous dinner.