Conceived just three years ago, in early 2016, the Raisina Dialogue is India’s premier foreign policy conference. And within this short span, it has emerged as a much-awaited event in the international foreign policy calendar. Organized along the lines of the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, and co-hosted by the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the Observer Research Foundation, it takes its name from the Raisina Hills, where India’s seat of power resides.
The Dialogue, since its inception, has attracted academics, scholars, researchers, students, journalists and even politicians who are either interested—or are working—in the field of international relations, geopolitics, security, nuclear issues and Indian foreign policy. That is evident with the fact that even the first edition of the dialogue involved about 120 international participants from 40 countries, while the second edition attracted 250 foreign participants from 65 countries.
Themes and strategies
The first edition of the Dialogue took place in March 2016. The overarching theme of that inaugural edition was 'Asia: Regional and Global Connectivity’. The next year’s theme was “The New Normal: Multilateralism with Multi-Polarity”. At each Dialogue, these themes provide a contextual backdrop to the sessions, presentations and discussions.
While the first edition was held in March, the next two editions, including the recently concluded one, took place in January. At first glance, this seems nothing more than a shift in schedules. But through a slightly more professional lens, there is nuance in this shift. Some experts in international relations argue that rescheduling happened as a part of a calculated decision to hold the event just before the week of Republic Day celebrations.
The rationale being that India is using every opportunity available to use all kinds of platforms to engage with other countries, both bilaterally and multilaterally. For instance, this year the government of India has made the unprecedented move of inviting ten heads of states from Asean countries as chief guests for its Republic Day ceremony.
In the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue, a significant portion of the discussion revolved around India’s eastern neighbours and, more prominently, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific region—one where both India and Asean countries have a significant role to play. Considering that the event also took place so close to an India-Asean summit means that little has been left to chance. The Dialogue is, then, just one of a quiver full of diplomatic ‘arrows’.
Why does the Dialogue matter?
An event of such scale sets the tone for the rest of the year. The Dialogue provides a platform for the government to state its position on various questions and issues of international relations. The event gives many experts, and other countries, a glimpse into the Indian government’s near-term priorities in international relations. Such insight is exceedingly, and this is no doubt why the Raisina Dialogue has proved to be a success.
The Dialogue also provides a golden chance for young scholars and researchers to interact with a galaxy of stars from the international relations universe. Also, it gives a platform for researchers to network and perhaps even collaborate. And finally, the event creates an ecosystem for the growth and development of think tanks and other policy groups. The Dialogue has arguably played an essential role in the blossoming policy sector in Delhi.
Raisina Dialogue 2018
This year, for the first time in the history of the Raisina Dialogue, a serving head of the state was invited to speak. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated the event with an enthusiastic speech on Indo-Israel relations and his love for ‘Hard Power’.
To the surprise of many, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t speak at all during the Dialogue despite being present during the inauguration ceremony. Despite that, the Raisina Dialogue has, by all accounts, been a success. For the first time, a third of the speakers in the panels were women. India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, highlighted this fact during her speech.
This year’s theme was “Managing Disruptive Transitions: Ideas, Institutions and Idioms”. Delegates from as many as 86 countries participated this year, included several young researchers selected as ‘Young Raisina Fellows’.
Discussions and debates
The major issues addressed this year were terrorism, the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, the rising threat from China, and India’s growing power in the international system. Apart from Netanyahu’s speech, the highlights of this edition of Raisina Dialogue was a statement made by Indian Army chief. General Bipin Rawat talked openly about state-sponsored terrorism and cautioned the media against promoting terrorist groups by giving them too much airspace. Rawat also called for restrictions on social media access to thwart the weaponisation of social media by terrorist groups.
Another significant statement came from India’s foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, who spoke on India’s geopolitical position, and the crucial role it plays in the region. He said, “India has acted as a wall between India’s, west which is in turmoil to India’s east, which is progressing. India has absorbed many of the evils from its west and has thereby insulated its eastern neighbours”.
Eyebrows were raised afterwards when a Raisina Fellow asked Jaishankar why he had made no mention of Indian state-sponsored terrorism in Balochistan. To which the foreign secretary replied: “I was asked to talk about ‘facts’ and not ‘fiction’.” The audience burst out in applause.
The issue of India shedding its old ‘non-aligned path’ came up several times. More than one panellist said that today India is decisively aligned with the US. It is perhaps in this context that statements by David Petraeus, a US war veteran and ex-director of the CIA, became notable at the Dialogue. Petraeus pointed out that the ‘ideological caliphate’ was a much bigger challenge than the ‘physical caliphate’. He said that the war on terrorism is a war of several generations. He also supported Jaishankar’s riposte on the Balochistan question, by saying that he hasn’t heard of anything called “Indian-sponsored terrorism”.
Raisina Dialogue 2018 was an opportunity for the world to see India’s growing aspirations to play a more proactive role in international relations. India’s muscular response to some awkward questions appears to have bolstered this impression. The Raisina Dialogue is still in the nascent stage of its life as an event on the international calendar. And, in some ways, it is yet to take an institutional form. But the indications are that it holds tremendous potential to not just scale up Indian international relations prowess both in theory but also in practice.