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Distinguished Lecture : In Conversation With Shri Nalin Surie

December 3, 2019

Shri Nalin Surie is a distinguished Indian Civil Servant, and a seasoned diplomat. He served as the Indian Ambassador to China, and previously held the post of Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs. He has served as a diplomat in a multitude of places, including Hong Kong, New York and Brussels. He recently gave a couple of seminars as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series at IITR, and Watch Out! decided to interview him, to pick at his treasure-trove of knowledge, and to learn more about his undergraduate studies, his opinions, his worldview and his career.

WO: You studied economics in your undergraduate and postgraduate studies. What led you to join the IFS and Indian Civil Service?

Shri Nalin Surie: You know as I mentioned in my talk a little earlier this morning, when we were growing up, there were not too many employment options and the most prestigious employment option was to take the UPSC exam and join the civil services, particularly the Foreign Service and the IAS. It was a difficult decision to take as I was actually keen to continue my training as an economist. I would have liked, personally, to do a PhD. There were certain circumstances which required me to stay back, and then I took the civil service exam. I worked hard for it but I was also very lucky that I made it in the first shot, and I was lucky that I was able to get the Indian Foreign Service. I have never regretted that decision. It has been a fabulous career. I think in one’s own way one has contributed to the making of Indian foreign policy, and it’s evolution. It’s a very satisfying job, it has been a very satisfying career. And I have never regretted the fact that I did not join the private sector or did not join any other profession. I do regret that I did not pursue higher studies in economics. But my training as an economist in the Delhi School of Economics actually has been one of the biggest strengths of my career because the bulk of our work is economic. And I had opportunities to use my training as an economist and I still take a lot of interest in international economic issues and the domestic economy. It has become a lifelong passion. It’s something which I find very relevant in my work. And in today’s international world, you cannot think of a geopolitical or geostrategic order without the economic element being critical. You cannot have military muscle on an empty stomach.

WO: You said that you love economics. Could you tell us your views on the current situation of the Indian economy and the world economy, and the way it is slowing down?

Shri Nalin Surie: Look I’m not going to talk so much about the world economy, but as far as the Indian economy is concerned we are going through a difficult phase. But please remember that we are still growing at between 5 & 6%. I don’t place too much stress on the big numbers but it’s important psychologically to have the right big numbers. The government is taking a lot of steps to bring in the required reforms. Bringing in the required economic reform in India is not easy - in a democracy, in a federal system - as you know. It takes a bit of time but it’s happening. And we should be back to 6%+ if all goes well next year. For the steps being taken, it takes a lag before the impact kicks in. So the parameters are good. The basic strength of the economy is strong. As I said to you earlier this morning, we have slipped, to my mind, particularly on the savings rate. We need to revive that, take it above 30%. It should be closer to 32% if we want to sustain an 8 % growth rate. And we need to do much more not only in manufacturing but also in reorienting the agriculture sector. We need to use agriculture, agro processing, food processing, fruit processing, the white sector, the dairy sector and upgrade it. You will have enormous growth coming out of that and technology will play a very large role in the upgradation of the agriculture sector.

WO: Do you see us becoming a 5-trillion economy by 2024?

Shri Nalin Surie: I’m not sure about 2024 - that is purely mathematical calculation. Frankly, if you want to do it you can just allow inflation to rise and it will happen. But that’s not what we want and that’s not what the government’s target is. The idea is to ensure a 5-trillion economy with a low inflation and a high growth rate. If it doesn’t happen by 2024 then it will happen by 2025. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s a question of how fast we can revive the big growth rate figure from between 5&6% to between 7&8%. But it’ll happen. I would rather it does not happen in mechanical terms because of high inflation rates, because this is an issue of the size of the economy at market prices. We want it to be in real terms. So inflation must remain low. Otherwise high inflation will cause other problems, serious problems. I mentioned earlier this morning that I’m basically optimistic about the Indian economy. I have always been optimistic. Reform is not easy in our system. But the more we are upset about our growth rate coming down, the more the pressure on the government is to bring in reform measures, and that’s a good thing in a democracy.

WO: Given the recent protests in Hong Kong, and China claiming Hong Kong to be a part of itself - what parallels can we draw between Hong Kong and Kashmir?

Shri Nalin Surie: No parallel at all. Hong Kong is a part of China and Kashmir is a part of India, period.

WO: Are those protests relevant to us as a country?

Shri Nalin Surie: No. I have lived in Hong Kong. I studied my language in Hong Kong, I had a posting in Hong Kong. Look, Hong Kong is a very strange…animal. You see, it is neither fish nor fowl. It is a special administrative region. It was a British colony, handed back to China in 1997 under an agreement. There are obviously grievances in Hong Kong. Serious grievances. Youth unemployment, income inequality, extremely high cost of housing etc. And these have not been addressed. They should have been addressed, but they have not been addressed. And there were demonstrations which started some years ago. The famous ‘umbrella’ revolution. But this time it got pretty violent and I don’t know why. There are various reasons attributed to this violence. I think the central government in Beijing has shown a lot of maturity by allowing the Hong Kong authorities to not only manage the situation, but they have also allowed the election process to go ahead unimpeded. And the elections have shown a remarkable result. So I think it reflects on the maturity of the authorities in Beijing. Let us see how they act now to the election results. It depends on them, but so far I think they have ensured that they keep a hands off approach. They have made a few statements which any government would make regarding its own territory but there is no parallel with Jammu and Kashmir. In civil society, demonstrations happen all the time. That’s your right to have a demonstration in any society, particularly in a democracy. You have this ‘Yellow Vest Movement’ in France where people go around destroying property, burning places. Why don’t you talk about that? You see the anomaly? You talk about Hong Kong but you don’t talk about the Yellow Vest Movement in France. Why not? Again I want to go back to what I said yesterday. Please have your independent narratives. Think things through. You belong to a very strong democracy. You cannot imagine how lucky you are. You aspire to be like the Chinese growth rates. You want to have the growth rates based on their system? It can be done. We tried the emergency and what happened? The people rejected it outright. Your generation may not remember it. So please read Indian history. This country is not ready for that kind of thing. This country is a federal system, it is a democratic federal system. That is your strength. We must never lose that strength. But please have your own independent narrative. Your generation particularly. Don’t get taken in by what others say.

WO: At the end of October, talks of new Naga Peace deal resurfaced on the news, but we haven’t heard anything since. Could you elaborate more on the issue and the importance of Nagaland in the region’s politics?

Shri Nalin Surie: This is a very complicated issue, and discussions have been going on for years. Yes we were all expecting an agreement. It didn’t happen, and negotiations will continue. And I’m sure they will end successfully. Because the gentleman who is handling this issue - the governor of Nagaland, Mr R N Ravi - is a very experienced negotiator. He knows the problem. He will handle it well. The important thing is to ensure that everything happens peacefully. See I don’t know the issue beyond a point so let me not pretend. Obviously there are claims the Nagas make on Naga populations in areas in adjoining states. Obviously those states have to agree to those conditionalities that the Nagas are putting before any agreement can be arrived at. There must be difficulties in that. It will happen. The important thing is that it is now all peaceful, and we need to make sure that it remains peaceful. We need to ensure that Nagaland is fully integrated into the Indian state as it should be.

WO: How was this whole experience of being posted in different countries and working with the UN?

Shri Nalin Surie: Very challenging, very educative. Very humbling, frankly. It helps you realize how much the world is advancing, how much other countries have advanced over you, even smaller countries. You understand to learn other people’s points of view and try to see how you can marry their points of view with your point of view so that we can move forward together. As I said to you, it has been a fabulous experience. I would not exchange my career for anything else. Obviously I have regrets about what I could have done, would have done, should have done. But that pales before what actually happened in my career. I am very happy about it. Most importantly, you learn to listen to people. Because without that there is no diplomacy. Without that there is no moving forward - unless you learn to listen to people.

WO: Do you have any general advice of us students?

Shri Nalin Surie : Look, I can only give you one piece of advice. Work hard, keep an open mind and you will have opportunities open up before you. If you don’t work hard or if you work hard and still have a closed mind, you will not make the same progress. So working hard and keeping an open mind is my answer to you. But remember one thing, the future of this country is not what we have made it. We changed the future we inherited. You can change the future you are inheriting. And you have many more means at your disposal. You are now part of a country which is a much bigger, more powerful, much richer country than when we were young. You cannot even imagine the India when we were growing up. You take everything for granted. Your phones, your computers, your food, everything. We used to stand in ration lines to buy our wheat and rice and sugar. Literally. We have grown up with shortages, we have grown up in difficult circumstances. But that’s what made us strong. Now that you have these facilities, particularly in an institution like this, you should use this to make yourself and this country stronger. The fact that you have fewer challenges in terms of your day to day livelihood or your educational requirements, or your technological requirements will actually encourage you to reach out much higher than we could. That’s the only advice I have. So work hard, keep an open mind and remember, you belong to a very old civilization but a very young and very powerful democracy. And never forget how free you are. And never take your freedom for granted. There is an old english saying. I think P G Wodehouse made it famous. It is the old man saying to the young man twirling his umbrella. He says young man, your freedom ends where my nose begins. So remember that. Good luck.