Be 'effectively collaborative': Sonia Gandhi

Hindustan Times Leadership Summit
Speech of Hon'ble Congress President, Sonia Gandhi

Mrs Shobhana Bhartia,

Mr Vir Sanghvi,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be back here in this forum where I see so many friends and familiar faces.

I find a certain comfort in this, and applaud the Hindustan Times for having established such a high reputation for organising these interactions.

If I have any reservation, it is in my own ability to add meaningfully to your deliberations. It is not always easy to find something different to say from the same lectern for five consecutive years. But as it happens, I have been rescued from this dilemma by the global economic downturn which is clearly the big issue of the day.

We are meeting in turbulent times, times that overshadow the larger theme of this year's Leadership Summit. Its focus, "Ambitions for the New Century" will, I am afraid, have to wait a while, as we grapple with the cataclysm that has been thrust upon us.

The year that is passing has witnessed an extraordinary confluence of crisis as oil prices zoomed, food shortages proliferated and now a financial meltdown that has threatened banks, undermined the value of homes, diminished stock portfolios, adversely affected exports and sharply reduced national growth rates everywhere.

Though governments in affected countries around the world have taken action on all of these fronts, it is too early to say whether the global dangers have been contained. Many are still grappling with the problems that have arisen in their economies.

India, too, is not immune to the contagion. Some have been saying that our economy is "decoupled" from America or Europe. That has clearly been proved to be wrong. While the bulk of investment resources needed for our development are generated domestically, and the domestic market is the main engine of growth in our country, we do live in an increasingly globalising world. Whether we like it or not, we are all interconnected. We will face difficulties. However I also believe that the situation will throw up new opportunities for us in the future.

But what concerns us most today is that this economic upheaval could grievously affect the most vulnerable sections of our society.

The poor have had nothing to do with the hubris of the rich. Their lives are spent close to the edge, simply trying to make ends meet after a hard day's toil. They have nothing to do with the fancy­-sounding financial instruments - derivatives and credit default swaps - that have ensnared so many and which very few even fully understand.

Should they then become the victims of the unchecked greed of bankers and businessmen? Should the avarice of a few be allowed to inflict misery on the many?

It is our duty to ensure that whatever action we take in response to the turmoil protects them. The Prime Minister himself has stressed this, and this remains our firm commitment.

Growth for us has never been only about per capita income figures. It has always been a means to an end.

As a responsible society the ends we have to care about most are the acceleration of employment generation, the expansion in education, the provision of adequate health care, the supply of clean drinking water and so much more.

These objectives are primary. They remain inviolable.

As an open society, we believe in an open economy. But not an unregulated one.

As a free society, we believe in the freedom to pursue prosperity. But not at the expense of social justice.

As a democratic society, we believe in the right of each individual to fulfil his or her productive potential. But not to forget those who are unable to exercise this right.

As a young society, we are conscious of the nature of rising aspirations and the need to fulfil them. But not in a manner in which conspicuous consumption overwhelms time-tested values of simplicity and restraint.

We will not abandon the prudent and cautious course charted so far under the able leadership of our Prime Minister. But we shall continue to sail the course, with due regard - for the choppy seas in which we now find ourselves.

Our prudence has been most marked in the case of the financial sector. If you allow me the liberty of showing what is to you the proverbial "red rag to the bull". Let me take you back to Indira Gandhi's much reviled bank nationalization of 40 years ago. Every passing day bears out the wisdom of that decision. Public sector financial institutions have given our economy the stability and resilience we are now witnessing in the face of the economic slowdown.

Prudence implies ensuring an economic system that imposes clear, fair rules and rewards those who play by them.

It implies a system that insists upon transparency in all economic transactions, and accountability on the part of those who conduct them.

And it implies a system that accepts the need for supervisory institutions to serve as effective watchdogs, so that the interests of society as a whole are not overlooked in the justifiable quest for corporate gain.

We will not be thrown off course by the winds buffeting us from abroad. There is no need for over-reaction, let alone for panic. There is no need for us to get back into the era of controls. At the same time we cannot allow things to spin out of control.

This means that liberalization must be pursued within a frame work of sensible but not heavy-handed regulation.

Our industrialists are more confident than ever that they can hold their own in the face of global competition. We do not wish to tie their hands. We recognize, too, that the economic downturn has severely affected their businesses, that they are facing problems in the domestic market-place. They need to be helped and are being helped.

We ask them only not to forget that the object of public policy is not only to facilitate their success, but also to ensure the well-being of the hundreds of millions of Indians who are striving to make ends meet, to manage two square meals a day, and to put a roof over their heads.

This is why we have pursued such steps as the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Mid-day School Meals, the Workers' Health Insurance and so many other initiatives. [Too many of our fellow Indians reach for the sky every day without a social safety net under them. We must provide them with the basic security they deserve.] Ultimately, that is the true meaning of collaborative leadership.

We are also concerned with small and medium enterprises who create the bulk of jobs and help in dispersing growth across our country. Their voices should be heard with as much attention while the big names of Indian industry-and I see quite a few of them in front of me this morning - like us politicians, always manage to catch the headlines, it is these lakhs of small and medium entrepreneurs who require sustained assistance, as much as others.

I have always been of the view that our country needs greater public investment in physical and social infrastructure. This need is all the more urgent now in this troubled period. But I believe equally that much more effort must go into making sure that our public systems are made vastly more efficient and responsive. This means adopting a more creative approach to enhance the impact and value of public expenditures. This approach has to be anchored in collaborative partnerships - between public and private, rich and poor, between industry and agriculture, between state institutions and private companies and civil society organisations. And this means working and collaborating with leadership at all levels to ensure that the welfare of all, not just one segment or other, is the objective of the State.

Collaboration is imperative because we are all in this together. The problems we face today affect us all. So, Ladies and gentlemen, let us surprise Professor Amartya Sen, let us give up our favourite trait of being "unendingly argumentative" and for a change, [let us] be 'effectively collaborative'.

As always you have a distinguished galaxy of speakers. I wish you all a productive conference, and I look forward with interest its outcome.

Thank you.


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