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Home / Opinion / A new Panchsheel for the 21st century

There are statesmen whose rousing and visionary oratory defined their nations. Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill and Nehru clearly are of this camp. Then there are leaders who overcame impediments to rise to the occasion in their nation’s hour of need. King George VI, who surmounted his stammer to rally an entire empire, exemplifies this group.

And then there is Manmohan Singh.

Never accused of being a stirring speaker at the best of times, Singh has compounded his timorous delivery by choosing the twilight years and the most unlikely of venues to lay out his strategic vision for India’s future role in the world. His speech at the Central Party School in Beijing is a typical example.

More significantly, his address at the annual conclave of Indian ambassadors and high commissioners last week was a defining epochal speech. It is probably the most important by any Indian leader in the 21st century. Sadly, in a country preoccupied with Mars, Narendra Modi, Tamils and Sachin Tendulkar, it barely caused a ripple.

Singh’s speech outlined the new Panchsheel principles. Some experts have argued that the original 1954 Panchsheel principles were formulated by China and not India; Nehru simply went along with it. Irrespective of the paternity of the original, it is now outdated and a new Panchsheel is essential for the new century.

The first principle of the new Panchsheel asserts that India’s development priorities will determine its engagement with the world. Hence, a key objective of India’s foreign policy is to create a conducive world order. To do so, New Delhi will have to enhance its role as a rule-shaper of global norms and institutions. This linkage is exemplified in the recent realization that India’s ambitious food security law is not in tune with its World Trade Organization commitments. The same is also the case for climate, energy, rivers, oceans and cyber security issues.

The second principle explicitly recognizes that India’s development prospects are now and for the future inexorably linked to the world economy in every aspect. India and its people cannot prosper without this integration.

The third principle argues that India can hope to create beneficial global economic and security environment for itself by working with all major powers. This is the best articulation of India’s policy of multi-alignment—its engagement in groupings like the Group of Twenty, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA)—and, perhaps, the quietest though eloquent burial of non-alignment.

The fourth principle recognizes that if India is to play a greater role at the global level then it will have to build and ensure greater regional cooperation and connectivity. This tacitly suggests that such regional integration might be the elusive path to improve political relations between the various countries.

Finally, the new Panchsheel underlines the import of India’s values “of a plural, secular and liberal democracy" as an inspiration to others in the world. These values not only distinguish India from the other major re-emerging power—China—but also indicate New Delhi’s softening of its unquestioning endorsement of absolute sovereignty, particularly at the cost of liberal democracy and pluralism. This principle might also pave the way for a realistic rather than a dismissive approach to concepts like democracy promotion and responsibility to protect.

These five principles, though articulated without much fanfare, have the potential to fundamentally transform India’s role in shaping the emerging world order. However, it is unrealistic to expect lame duck Singh to try and implement these principles when timidity was the hallmark of his second administration. At best, he could seek to build a national consensus around the new Panchsheel. However, given the deep domestic political polarization that might be a tall order for any leader; and that is tragic.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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