India's Nationalist President Conquers the World by Waging Peace and Talking Business
First, it was Bangladesh. Then Mauritius, Belgium and Turkey, followed by Vietnam, Norway, Finland, Bhutan and Russia. The latest were Sweden and Belarus. The world is his oyster, but for President Pranab Mukherjee, India is the banquet. Those in the know at Rashtrapati Bhavan will tell you President Mukherjee used to hate travelling abroad. He specifically disliked ceremonial visits, because he believed the role of the President of India, especially during foreign visits, should be in the national interest—proactive and dialogue-driven, while keeping the country’s geopolitical and economic priorities in mind. Hence, he used to joke that he hated packing and unpacking for long sojourns overseas. All that changed when he realised that India needed more than a ceremonial head of state, who merely raised toasts at sumptuous banquets, made pretty speeches at official dinners and gave perfect photo-ops at national monuments. The President was a national ambassador and unifier while abroad, and not a glorified tourist.
This was quite evident during Mukherjee’s four-day visit to Sweden and Belarus last week. The hectic pace of the air miles covered, treaties signed, negotiations concluded and speeches delivered belied his age, but set new benchmarks for the power of connectivity and mutually beneficial engagements with his hosts. Since Indian presidents are not conventionally expected to travel to superpower nations such as the US, Japan, Germany, the UK and others, Mukherjee has always chosen to visit those nations, which can play an important role in India’s strategic and trade relations. Last week was his 10th visit abroad since he took over as India’s 13th President in July 2012. As he was the first Indian President to travel to both countries, he fixed his itinerary and meetings in such a way that all important segments like politics, diplomacy, business, culture and academics were addressed. During the 25 meetings and official functions the President attended, his interactions were not of a random nature, but well thought through. He adopted a theme suited to every occasion and audience. Yet the running theme was synergy between Indian nationalism and local icons, business leaders, the Indian Diaspora, academics and foreign leaders. Mukherjee used each and every platform to convey to his audience the fact that engaging with a resurgent India would fetch mutual rewards. He addressed business forums, visited important universities and held parleys with even the opposition leaders of the countries. Normally it is the Prime Minister or the head of the government who gets a standing ovation from the people, since it is in the scepter in his hand that real power resides. With President Mukherjee, it was a different story.
Rarely has a President from India got such a massive applause from audiences abroad—not only from the NRIs in Sweden and Belarus but also from the local academic and cultural elite. For example, when the Indian Ambassador to Sweden, Ms Banashri Bose Harrison, sent out an invitation to NRIs and other local dignitaries for a reception in honour of the President, the response was unprecedented. All the attendees rose to hail the President after he finished his speech. They walked to the dais in a row to be photographed with him. The highlight of the function was his 20-minute extempore speech, the kind of which an Indian President has rarely delivered. His advice to the audience was to connect with local culture and become the unofficial ambassadors of India’s rich heritage while remaining attentive to local laws. Since Mukherjee was one of India’s senior-most politicians before he moved to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he knew the power of focused delivery and the historical grasp to invoke India’s golden past and remind the people of both countries about the relevance of national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore. The past and the present segued seamlessly as he also informed his hosts about the new environment of growth and confidence, which prevails in India under the new dispensation. Mukherjee used his visit to Sweden’s Uppasala University to speak on the ‘Relevance of Tagore and Gandhi in World Peace’ to reiterate India’s commitment to plurality and coexistence. He said, “Tagore’s views on ‘nationalism’ reveal his distaste for parochialism, racial divide and social stratification. He firmly believed that world peace could never be achieved until big and powerful nations curbed their desire for territorial expansion and control over smaller nations.” According to the poet, the Orient and the Occident must meet on a common ground on terms of equal fellowship: “where knowledge flows in two streams—from the East and from the West.” However, as usual, the unity of cultures was the Presidential visit’s leitmotif. Mukherjee recollected the outstanding work done by Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Swedish leader and the second Secretary-General of the United Nations.
In Belarus, too, respect and popularity formed the subtext of Mukherjee’s speeches. At a prominent university, he said, “The intellectual calibre of the university and its alumni is reflected in the fact that it contributes as many as three out of every four researchers to the Belarus Academy of Sciences. Your pursuit of scientific knowledge and advanced research places this university at the centre of Belarus’ national developmental programmes.” Addressing the Indo-Belarus Business Council, Mukherjee said, “As you are aware, India is emerging as one of the largest economies in the world and one of the fastest-growing emerging markets with an average annual growth rate of more than 7 per cent over the past decade. There are positive signals that suggest that we may be moving to an even higher growth path.” He added, “Our bilateral trade turnover is modest and way below its real potential. I am, however, optimistic. My interactions with President Lukashenko make me hopeful that we can increase our trade to a level of $1 billion by the year 2020. I am confident that this level is achievable if we expand the range of items in our trade basket, increase the share of high technology and value-added products and enhance exchanges and cooperation in the services sector, such as healthcare, IT, financial services, transport and logistics.” He invited Swedes to invest in India. The astute political instinct latent in Mukherjee understood that ambience also plays an important role in building a relationship. In Stockholm, he accepted King Carl XVI Gustaf’s invitation for a boat ride and to absorb the views of Swedish business leaders. For over an hour, the President heard out over a dozen of them regarding their issues with India.
With the rich experience of having governed the defence, economic and diplomatic establishment of India, Mukherjee has proved himself to be Modi’s best companion in India’s quest to become a global super power. The President left many things unsaid when he quoted Tagore to his audience at Uppasala University, “It was Buddha who conquered the world, not Alexander.” Mukherjee’s conquest of the world in India’s interests holds the subtle undertone of waging peace and connecting nations.
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