Former high commissioner Peter Sutherland hopes Indian election ushers in “strong, reform-oriented government”

Peter Sutherland
Peter Sutherland Photo submitted



PETER Sutherland, former Canadian high commissioner to India who is currently President and CEO of the Canada-India Business Council, told The VOICE on Tuesday that he thinks that the India election results “will hopefully lead to a strong, reform-oriented government which will be good for India and good for Canada.”

He said: “I am quite optimistic about the result of the election. I think it will be a good move forward.”

Sutherland told me: “It’s a very sort of pivotal election because as you know the economy has slowed considerably from its 9 or 10 per cent growth rate down to around 5 per cent and part of that, of course, has repercussions for the business sector and for the country’s ability to grow as a whole. And so what’s important I think is to find a way of revitalizing, regenerating and reenergizing the economy.”

When I asked him what he would like whoever wins to do, he replied: “Well, the first thing … is that hopefully the results will produce a government that has a certain strength and stability to it. And then as you know that the normal pattern in India since 1989 has been coalition governments and the problem with a coalition government, unless you are one strong sort of dominant partner, [is that] it’s very difficult to take sort of strong decisions and change policies because you have so many different people sitting around the table all of who have different interests.

“So I think what the first thing that needs to happen and hopefully will happen as a result of the election you will have a new government. It will probably be a coalition government, hopefully a coalition government where one party, for example, the BJP, has the strongest position and is able to move forward in terms of introducing reforms that will help speed up economic growth.”

The seventh round of the 10-phase polls across India, which began April 7 and ends May 12, was taking place this week across 12 states and one union territory in 117 constituencies. The results will be declared May 16.

WHEN I asked him about the specific steps that a new government should take to give the economy a boost, Sutherland said that the first thing it would need to do would be to “start taking some decisions and stick with them,” pointing out the current government’s “kind of policy paralysis.”

He explained: “They’re reluctant to take decisions partly because of I think some internal frictions within the Congress Party itself, partly because they are part of a coalition and the various members of the coalition are quite fractious and not prepared to move forward and partly because of the recent series of high profile scandals. Government and ministers in particular are reluctant to take decisions because they are concerned that they might be accused of being corrupt. So the result is decisions haven’t been taken.”

He referred to the proposed tax reform, transfer of land and labour reform. He added: “In addition, a number of major projects have been stalled because they haven’t got the needed clearances from the environmental authorities and as well you’ve got situations where mining licences have been stopped or not issued or mining has been stopped simply because there is a concern about corruption.”

Sutherland said: “So what India needs I think is a strong government that’s prepared to move on some of these files, to take decisions, and that I think will not only help restore confidence in the business community, both the Indian business community and also the foreign business community, lead to increase in investment and growth in the economy.”

I asked Sutherland what further steps could either India or Canada take to boost trade between the two countries and he replied: “I think there’s a lot of interest on both sides, certainly in particular sectors. I think the sectors that are of the greatest potential for business between the two countries are energy, agriculture, education and probably infrastructure. Those are areas that are of prime importance to India and those are areas where Canada has something valid to offer.”

He feels that if the new government takes reform measures, confidence will be reignited both in India and in Canada and in those sectors where there is that potential, leading to a pickup in business.
Sutherland said that there is an “enormous potential” for further increase in trade between the two countries. He pointed out that although the Australian economy is about two-thirds the size of our economy, Australia’s bilateral trade with India is about $20 billion a year as compared to our bilateral trade with India of roughly $5 billion a year.

When I asked Sutherland about India’s international alignments, he pointed out: “I think what you are finding is that India has become much more of a global player than it was in the past. In the old days it seemed to be sort of fixated on its own immediate neighbourhood – South Asia.”

He added that India is now a “much bigger, more prominent player” with the so-called “Look East” policy where it’s quite active in East Asia as member of the informal group known as the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China].

He said: “They work together and are self-supporting and you’ve got the opening of India to the West, particularly in relation to the United States, with Canada, of course, with Europe and other major global players like Japan. India is now a member of the G20 as you know and is widely consulted on most major issues that affect the world in general. India is much more outward looking than it was in the past. I think that’s to be encouraged.”

SUTHERLAND advises Canadian companies interested in doing business in India, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. He is with Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis LLP. He also served as Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the Philippines besides posting in the United States, Hungary, and Ivory Coast and as an attorney in the Inter-American Development Bank.