BY RATTAN MALL
INDIAN High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria’s positive attitude regarding relations between Canada and India is based on solid facts.
For example, there has been a mind-boggling increase in investments from about $5 billion portfolio investment in 2015 to about $60 billion today between the two countries.
This speaks to the confidence that Canadian investors and portfolio investments and investment firms have in the Indian growth story, notes Bisaria.
An Alberta-based company, Providence Therapeutics, is currently working with Biological E. in India’s Hyderabad to develop an Indo-Canadian vaccine — a messenger RNA [mRNA] vaccine — which is at stage 3 trial.
The Indian government has already reserved 300 million doses of that vaccine.
Bisaria’s diplomatic experience – as you will see in this interview – is amazing. In this extensive interview, I asked him, among other things, why India should be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Here is our interview:
You’ve been the High Commissioner of India to Canada for more than 16 months now. What is your general impression of this country?
BISARIA: I would begin by saying that Canada and India are natural partners in multiple ways because we have so much in common in terms of diversity, democracy, and values like multiculturalism. We have a lot of alignment of interests as well, as the world goes through rapid geo-political change. India and Canada are also the two major G20 economies with a great deal of complementarity.
So what we are seeing is a natural alignment of these two large democracies and G20 economies with natural linkages and synergies and joined by a strong people-to-people dynamic, which is the 1.6 million diaspora, which pushes us towards being even stronger partners. So I would say that the relationship will always have its hiccups – political and economic – but the overall direction is a very positive one towards greater understanding and leveraging this economic bond.
What challenges, if any, are you encountering in India-Canada relations?
BISARIA: As I said, there will be multiple challenges because it is a deepening strategic partnership; and the more we engage, the more issues we would encounter and the more challenges we would encounter, and that’s only natural. And I think the role of diplomacy between the two countries is essentially to develop creative solutions to those challenges.
In the political sector, we have had challenges in the past but we’ve found creative ways of overcoming them. One example is the vaccine partnership between India and Canada. On February 10 this year, Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau called up [Indian] Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi and said that Canada needed vaccines and within three to four weeks of that call, the vaccines were here. We had 500, 000 vaccines of AstraZeneca delivered.
As another example of the strong partnership during COVID-19 times, there is now an Indo-Canadian vaccine in the works. There is a company called Providence Therapeutics in Canada based in Alberta. That company is already working with the vaccine capital of the world – which is Hyderabad – and a company called Biological E. to develop an Indo-Canadian vaccine which is a messenger RNA [mRNA] vaccine, which is, in fact, at stage 3 trial. So once it’s approved, it can be a vaccine that is available for use in India and Canada and globally. And already the Indian government has reserved 300 million doses of that vaccine. So that is again a positive development.
I think it speaks to the level of the relationship and the depth of the relationship that we continue to face issues and we continue to solve them.
There is no limit to expanding trade between India and Canada. What do you think would really give a boost to our economic relations because trade between our countries is not as large as it can be?
BISARIA: We have to recognize that Canada is a relatively small country of 38 million people. So there is a natural limit to how much trade we can do, but certainly the trade is below potential. What we achieved in 2019 was a trade level of CDN$10 billion which was higher than it has ever been. But I think there are multiple pathways to growth. One of the things that we are trying to increase trade is to work out a comprehensive trade agreement. We are in serious discussion at this point at the expert level on a limited trade agreement which will be not a high ambition trade agreement which we have been discussing for ten years, but a reaping as it were of the low hanging fruit. So what we are hoping to achieve is to agree on, the areas we agree on which are of interest to both sides, and on a limited number of issues, so that we can go ahead with such an early harvest trade agreement. And that is something which will certainly boost trade.
We are also discussing an investment promotion agreement.
So while trade is an important part of the economic partnership, even more significant is the investment coming in from Canada into India, which is largely portfolio investment. The headline of the economic partnership between India and Canada has been the increase in investments from about $5 billion portfolio investment in 2015 to about $60 billion today. So it is a huge increase and it also speaks to the confidence that Canadian investors and portfolio investments and investment firms have in the Indian growth story.
So overall, the economic exchange annually between India and Canada is $100 billion compared to a trade level of just $10 billion, because if you add the investments to the trade and add the remittances and tourism spends, we have a very strong economic exchange overall. This will easily double in the next five years because as the Indian economy grows to $5 trillion and then $10 trillion, I think the India-Canada partnership will more than commensurately increase.
You sound very optimistic.
BISARIA: Well, we work on optimism, we work on positive scenarios and we need to do that because these are self-fulfilling prophecies. Once you have targets which are higher, you can hope to achieve them.
You were advisor to the World Bank’s Executive Director for South Asia from 2004 to 2008 in Washington D.C., so you have this overall picture of South Asia. How is this helping you in Canada?
BISARIA: The World Bank was a tremendous experience in seeing global economic diplomacy at work. I was there in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008. So it was interesting to see how the World Bank geared up to deal with it. Speaking of South Asia, it continues to be the least economically integrated region of the world. You get that perspective when you see other areas and geographies which are integrated. NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement – now the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)], for instance.
So the potential is huge and we hope that South Asia moves towards that destiny of being a more integrated region and a more trading region. We already have the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] in place and the SAFTA [South Asian Free Trade Area – an arrangement between the SAARC countries] which was envisaged as a mechanism for growing trade. We hope that bilateral relationships and particularly the one between India and Pakistan improves sufficiently to be able to realize the economic potential of this region.
Besides your expertise in East Europe as well as the Eurasia region, you have vast experience in Russian diplomacy and are fluent in Russian. How do you see the relationship between Russia and India developing in the future?
BISARIA: I would say the India-Russia strategic partnership continues to strengthen and evolve. It is a strong partnership. It’s just that the world has changed. So, post-1990, in the post-Cold War era, we have a situation where India is dealing with a multi-polar world and it is possible for India to have multiple friends. Russia itself underwent a huge transformation from being the Soviet Union to becoming Russia. But I think it’s still a strong strategic partnership. I have dealt with that partnership for several years and attended several summits. We are now dealing with a much more rapidly changing world and, in that state of flux, we continue to redefine all our relationships, including the one with Russia.
How is the relationship with Russia nowadays?
BISARIA: It’s in a positive space. The two leaders [of India and Russia] have an annual summit and we have continuous consultations through a joint commission, through various other mechanisms. Our foreign minister was in Russia recently. The defence partnership is very strong. We engage with Russia at multiple levels and have a strong alignment of interests. It remains an important partnership for India.
You were private secretary to the then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee from 1999 to 2004 and attended more than 50 international meetings with him. You obviously have a good grasp of India’s role internationally. Why do you think India should be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council?
BISARIA: Well, because India’s time has come. India has been on the high table of global geopolitics as least from the turn of this century, and India’s position as the world’s largest democracy is bolstered by a rapidly growing economy, projected to be among the top three economies in the next few decades. So India has a voice, India has a presence, India is playing a constructive leadership role. There are multiple reasons why India should have a key role in a reformed United Nations system of global governance, where India should have a permanent place in the Security Council. We feel that this is something India’s heft and weight and global position certainly justifies.
So what can India do about it? Do they need more diplomatic initiative in this?
BISARIA: More than India, other countries need to recognize this position. India continues to have these conversations at the United Nations through various mechanisms that are available. Currently, India is in the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member for two years. The debate on UN reforms goes on. It’s not an easy process in the United Nations – it’s a painfully slow process. The conversations take place and I think a time will certainly come when the world agrees that the United Nations system needs to be reformed. It answers the needs of 1945, and not that of the world of 2021, which is a completely new and different world. So I think global governance itself needs to undergo a certain transformation to answer the needs of the day and to address the new challenges.
You’ve seen the challenges through this century in at least three shocks or disruptions, one every decade. The first was 9/11, which was telling us that global terrorism was here to stay and the world needed to deal with it. India has been on the forefront of that battle in many ways. Then came the 2008 financial crisis that said that the world needs to get together to reform its financial systems, that they should become more robust in dealing with these crises. And then you had the public health system shock of 2020 – the pandemic.
All this shows that the global systems were not sharp enough or robust enough to deal with and to anticipate these crises and certainly not to react fast enough. So what we need is a reformed global system and we feel India’s leadership role in that would be important.
You served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan from December 2017 to February 2020 and had to deal with a new Pakistan government under Prime Minister Imran Khan. How do you think India and Pakistan could come to a peaceful solution of their problems?
BISARIA: I would say the endpoint is clear to most sensible people in India and in Pakistan. We need to live peacefully as normal neighbours. Seventy-five years is a long time to be living in conflict with a neighbour. So we need to move forward and India is ready to do that. India has said in multiple ways … all Indian prime ministers have made various moves for peace, including the current prime minister. I would just say that India wants a normal, peaceful neighbourly relationship with Pakistan and for that we would like Pakistan to be a normal, peaceful country and not a country that believes in violence and in using violence in state policy. So in an atmosphere free of violence, we need to move towards a peaceful solution. We are ready for that, but it has been disappointing how we have moved in the last 75 years. We hope that better sense and better policy prevails and that we move towards peace.
What are your hobbies? I believe you are really into yoga?
BISARIA: Yes, I try to be regular with yoga. The pandemic has given me time to read a lot. I like playing golf and I often go out on the greens and that is also therapeutic. I follow the yoga system of Sadhguru which is something called inner engineering, or Shambhavi Mahamudra, which is a simple process based on pranayama (or deep breathing) and can be a transformative experience.