This year, India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence from the United Kingdom. On this occasion, the Ambassador of the Republic of India to Hungary, Rahul Chhabra gave an extensive interview to Diplomacy&Trade the huge development his country has gone through over these seven decades.
In August this year, people all over India and Indians around the world celebrated seven decades of independence; it was on August 15, 1947 that the Parliament of the United Kingdom’s Indian Independence Act 1947 became effective, transferring legislative sovereignty to the Indian Constituent Assembly.
When asked how much India has evolved over these seven decades, the country’s ambassador to Hungary, Rahul Chhabra says “it has been a complete transformation” and he quotes some figures to illustrate the change. Starting with life expectancy, in 1951 (when the census was taken), it was a mere 37 years, while today, it is over 65.
“Then, you look at infant mortality, which 70 years ago was 50 per 1,000 babies, a figure now down to below 37. Seven decades ago, only 12% of the population was literate – today, the literacy rate is 74%. As for infrastructure, the 400,000 kilometers of paved road has increased to five million kilometers, and the number is growing, as we are adding 23 kilometers of road per day. India is the third largest producer of electricity in the world. 70 years ago, the electricity capacity was 1,300 megawatts while today, it is 250,000 megawatts. Seven decades ago, the economy was in really bad shape with a growth rate of 2% but we pushed this figure up to 4% and recently to 8% or 9% – sometimes, we see double digit growth. Another aspect of the transformation of India over these seven decades is that the country today is a scientific power. We have launched a mission to Mars. What is more, we are the only country in the world that made a successful launch to Mars at the first attempt and the cost of it was about one tenth of similar missions. Also, India is the only country in the world that managed to put over 100 satellites in orbit with one single launch vehicle.”
Regarding the anniversary celebrations in Hungary, the Ambassador highlights that “we have been trying to spread the message of the new India, the changing India. So, we thought we should show Hungarians what modern India is about. One way of conveying that message was through a fashion show we did this September - it was called ‘Alluring India’. Top Indian designers showcased their latest collections in Hungary. In fact, these collections were globally launched here. The designers, who have exhibited in Paris, Milan and New York, helped us show that Indian outfits are appreciated globally and influence world couture. In addition to this fashion show, we are also looking to organizing more events, such as business fairs across the country and we are also showcasing the economic potential of India so that Hungarians – including Hungarian businesspeople – can see that business can be done there.
Democracy as a cohesive force
India is a huge country with the world’s second largest population and with a large number of ethnic and religious groups. As to what the secret is of keeping this diverse population a unified country for 70 years, the Ambassador has a very simple answer: “Unity in diversity has been our motto for thousands of years. I think the secret is democracy. For the last 70 years, we have been proud to be the world's largest democracy; elections are held regularly. At the last elections, the eligible electorate was over 800 million people and more than 66% of that actually cast their vote. It has been a big job to get so many people registered – over 100 million people were registered in the past year alone – and then tabulate the votes, etc. in a way that nobody could have found any sort of irregularity or mishandling of the votes. One other important feature in this respect was the installation of electronic voting machines that were introduced recently. So, we have a democracy where people have the opportunity to express themselves. When they are unhappy they can change the people who represent them or re-elect them if they are satisfied with them. India is growing with that sort of democratic background. That is a very good sign for the rest of the world also. It is a democratic country and with such a diverse population, we have pulled tens of millions of people out of poverty in the last two or three decades since privatization and the opening-up of our economy.
The Indian way
In an earlier Hungarian newspaper interview, the Ambassador said that India wants to be successful in its own way. To Diplomacy&Trade, he stresses that the ‘Indian way’ of success is “largely due to our democratic credentials and background. It is a very non-prescriptive sort of way also. We are not trying to follow anyone and we do not necessarily want anyone to follow us. We are not trying to copy any single model which we believe we would not be able to adapt to and/or may not work for us. We do not want to be very prescriptive and stand on rooftops shouting ‘this is the best way to do it and there is no other way to do it’. Every country is different and is free to find its own way. So, instead, we take everyone along, accommodate everyone's aspirations, take into consideration their viewpoints. Many times, people complain that it takes too long to make a decision but ultimately, when the decision is made, it has all the different elements incorporated. People are satisfied that they have made their points, their voice has been heard to whatever extent possible. In the end, it is a sort of compromise, but it is also a well-founded decision. Some people find the process a little slow and cumbersome but for our large country that is probably the only way to go ahead.”
The Ambassador also has a short answer to how he would characterize Hungarian-Indian political and economic relations: “They are excellent. We had a very successful visit by our Vice President about a year ago. He had outstanding meetings with the President and with the Prime Minister and with the Speaker of the national assembly – so, it was a great visit. It fell on a weekend, as it was difficult to get a slot in the schedule of the Vice-President, so, we are very grateful to the Hungarian government that they were able to accommodate this visit. Hungary and India cooperate well in the international arena, we support each other's candidates in international organizations. So, there is a great collaboration at that level, also. The Hungarian Foreign Minister has visited India several times in the past two years. Also, just recently, he met our Foreign Minister at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia and also in New York as we also use multilateral meetings to discuss issues. So, the political level is characterized by great understanding. Of course, as far as economic relations are concerned, we are extremely satisfied. The trade volume is approximately USD 600 million. Although, it is not really at its full potential. It has grown by 28% in first half of 2017. The other very positive sign is investments. I believe this is the new way to do business.”
There are several Indian companies in Hungary. Large ones like SMR, TCS and Apollo Tyres are present with important investments. Ambassador Chhabra says his impression is that they are satisfied with the economic environment here. “They tell me that any request they turn to the Hungarian government with, they generally get a quick response. So, they are very satisfied. That was also shown by the fact that in the case of SMR, they have three plants here in the country, they have just opened one in Kecskemét. The fourth plant will be inaugurated this November in Túrkeve and the fifth plant is due to open in March next year. So, the company is expanding rapidly. Local governments seem to be keen to have these investments because it brings jobs to the region. The companies are happy because they find a positive environment in which to set up their plants. All of the aforementioned companies are also cooperating with local universities to make sure that the courses offered there are in line with the industry requirements. Then, these students may– if they want –get a job with one of these companies. So, these firms are looking at the long term in that sense and also investing in the community.”
Tourism figures between the two countries are increasing and the Ambassador has concrete figures to support that. “About two years ago, we introduced e-visas. It is one way for us to improve the tourism figures. Now, Hungarians do not need to come to the Embassy to get a visa; they just have to go online and fill in everything required. In June 2016, the Embassy issued 152 e-visas, while this number in the same month of this year was 199. In July 2016, the number was 170, while in July, 2017, it was 244. The August numbers also increased from 182 in 2016 to 257 in 2017. The total number of visas is going up, as well. We gave out 3,500 visas in 2015, 5,000 in 2016 and 3,500 in the first eight months of this year. Also growing is the number of tourists from India to Hungary: 4,700 in 2013, 5,900 in 2015 and 16,404 in 2016. These are only figures provided by border control, obviously not including those coming to Hungary from within the countries of Schengen zone where there is no internal border control. Indians coming to Hungary now also include a lot of students thanks to the Stipendium Hungaricum program of the Hungarian government, which means 166 additional students this year only. There has traditionally been a large body of full fee paying Indian students who continue to be attracted to the high quality Hungarian education.”
Cultural relations between the two countries go back many-many decades “but the most important link for us is the stay in Hungary (on the shores of Lake Balaton) of the world-renowned India poet Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Being of part Hungarian descent, Amrita Sher Gil was one of India’s leading avant-garde artistes of the early 20th century. In another development, I started a new series of cultural events, the Ganga-Danube festival. This year, we had the second series in 15 towns and cities while last year it took place in ten settlements all around the country. This is about music, dance, cuisine and fashion. So, it is all of India in culture, even Bollywood films. It is a good sign that, when I visit other cities, the mayors usually ask me about the festival and they want to know why their town or city is not included. I promise to them and that is how we pick up more venues. We also involve the Indian community in Hungary. They come to help as volunteers. The Ganga-Danube festival is in June and many of the programs are open air events. We have a lot of artists coming in from India for this occasion – over 40-50 of them. They are joined by another 50 artists who are Hungarians trained in India in Indian art and culture for several years. The other good thing is the Amrita Sher-Gil cultural center, located next to the Embassy, where we have daily classes of music and dance and they are all fully subscribed. So, we have a full house and now we also have Saturday classes. We have multiple classes in multiple rooms as we are trying to accommodate everyone who wants to come and join us. This is the way Hungarians learn Indian classical dance and music. I believe Indian culture is very well accepted in Hungary and Hungarians seem to be happy to absorb it,” Ambassador Rahul Chhabra concludes.