Al-Ahram: India and Egypt share a close civilizational and historic relationship which was further strengthened through our active role in the Non-Aligned Movement. What is the current status of the relations and what are the future prospects?
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: As you have rightly pointed out, our two countries have long had a close and comfortable relationship. This is reflected in our political consultations, defence exchanges, commerce and investments, and people-to-people contacts. However, the turbulent global situation makes a compelling case for an upgraded relationship. Even during the Covid pandemic, we helped each other in supply of medicines, vaccines, etc. In the context of the Ukraine conflict, we have explored each other as sources of food and fertilizer security. All realists would plan for a volatile and uncertain world in the near term. That means creating reliable and long-term relationships, especially in domains that directly affect the welfare of the people. Moreover, as independent-minded countries, India and Egypt have a responsibility to temper down a polarized global scenario. All in all, this points to much closer cooperation in the days to come. That was certainly reflected in the talks that I had with the Egyptian leadership.
AA: There are many similarities between our cultures, with our people sharing love for music, arts, and literature. Indian movies have left a deep impression on Egyptians for many decades and young people are also following Bollywood and TV serials closely. Similarly, yoga is also becoming very popular in Egypt. What role has India’s soft power played in bringing together the people of Egypt and India?
SJ: I remember the first time I came to Egypt. It was almost 15 years ago and I was a tourist. Many people I met here were more knowledgeable about Indian films than even I was. In the years that have passed, we have seen the spread of many other aspects of culture. Yoga is the most prominent. Our movies and television dramas have generated an even greater following. Indian restaurants are quite common place. As I look at the world. I can see that its enormous cultural diversity is now expressing itself more fully. We are no longer allowing one continent or culture to set standards for all others. This is a key aspect of the democratization of the global order.
AA: Despite its huge population, India not only overcame the COVID-19 pandemic but also created a model for the world to deal with a future public health crisis. Could you please elaborate on the aspects contributing to India's success in managing COVID-19 and its success in vaccine development and administration?
SJ: We took the Covid pandemic as a collective challenge for the entire society. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led from the front. In the initial stages, like so many other countries, we had no wherewithal to deal with Covid. Literally, in a matter of weeks and months, we started producing masks, PPES, ventilators and medicines. We set up dedicated Covid centres on a massive scale. When it came to vaccination, the Modi Government encouraged the production of 'Made in India' vaccines very early. We also supported a vaccine that was invented by an Indian company. And while doing vaccination at home, took a conscious decision to also supply to others who did not have early access. Not least, India created a digital platform called Co-WIN that ensured that the vaccination process was efficiently organized. Through that, we could get more than 2 billion vaccinations done very smoothly. Certainly. we have established a reputation as the pharmacy of the world. But equally, the big achievement was in digital delivery on a massive scale. There are lessons for other developing countries, perhaps even for the developed, in this experience.
AA: In recent years, India has emerged as a global leader in renewable energy and has also set ambitious targets to fight climate change. We have also heard that India is developing ambitious plans for electric vehicles, green hydrogen, and a strategy for decarbonization. Can you please tell us about the targets set by India to reduce the use of fossil fuels and also steps to encourage EVs and green hydrogen?
SJ: We believe that climate change should be addressed effectively and seriously, keeping in mind common but differentiated responsibilities. Prime Minister Modi has called for a mass movement aimed at promoting a Lifestyle for Environment (LIFE). India today is pursuing a climate-friendly and cleaner path than those whose development preceded us. We have committed to reducing the emissions intensity of our GDP by 45 percent by 2030 from the 2005 level. In addition, the technology transfer and low-cost international finance, we seek to achieve 50 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil sources by 2030. An additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent will be created through additional forest and tree cover. Enhanced investments in development programs will address adaptation in sectors vulnerable to climate change. Obviously, we are looking at additional funds from developed countries as also domestic mobilization. Our long-term goal is to reach net-zero by 2070. In all of this, the difference that Electric Vehicles and Green Hydrogen can make are appreciable. Government policies promote both goals strongly. Our businesses are also taking up the challenge. These are areas for collaboration between India and Egypt. I should also mention two key international initiatives that India is globally promoting: the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.
AA: The Indian economy has been one of the fastest growing economies in the last few years and has emerged as the 5th largest economy in the world with a GDP of over $3.2 trillion in 2022. India is also a global leader in IT, Pharmaceuticals, Engineering, etc. In light of this, how do you think India's rise will impact the world in general and how can Egypt utilize Indian expertise?
SJ: We are already the fifth-largest economy in the world in nominal terms. In the next few years, we will be the third largest. But more importantly, there will be many sectors where our capabilities will be globally competitive. To my mind, these like IT, Pharma, or Engineering can become areas of business collaboration.
AA: India is regarded as an excellent example of ‘Unity in Diversity, where people from different religious and linguistic backgrounds live together in peace and harmony. In the midst of a turbulent world and constant warfare in many regions, what can the world learn from India’s syncretic culture? Also, could you explain how this has contributed to the shaping of India's Foreign Policy?
SJ: India's celebration of the diversity of every kind is a true expression of democracy. Nowadays, there is a global debate about who is a real democracy and who is not. At the end of the day, the right yardstick of judgment is whether society values the range of its diversity or pushes for uniformity and political correctness. At a global level, this debate will express itself as cultural re-balancing.
AA: The volume of trade exchange between Egypt and India has reached record levels in FY 2021-22. As mentioned during the recently held India-Egypt Business Council, this number seems likely to grow further, given the increasing cooperation between the two countries. How do you see the possibility of achieving that?
SJ: We need to take a promotional and problem-solving approach to grow trade. Both sides should address market access barriers more effectively. At the same time, greater investment will also generate greater trade.
AA: India has developed immense expertise in the field of information technology. India is also becoming an expert in the domain of renewable energy. How do you see the opportunities for cooperation between India and Egypt in these sectors?
SJ: Presently. Indian companies are providing IT services through data centres located mainly in the Gulf. However, IT is a sector that India is known for in terms of quality, reliability and affordability. Egypt needs to attract Indian IT companies through policies that allow foreign IT companies to quickly set up data centres locally in Egypt. There are ongoing discussions to set up local IT Development Centers in Egypt by some well-known Indian IT companies. However, these are still at the discussion stage and I am hopeful that it may soon materialize.
As you may be aware, some Indian companies in the field of renewable energy have already signed MoUs with SCEZ and other entities in Egypt, for setting-up Green Hydrogen projects. I am confident that Green Hydrogen is a promising sector and it is quite likely that more Indian companies will join in investing in this sector in Egypt in the future.
AA: In your opinion, what are some of the major problems that Indian investors face in Egypt? Are you optimistic that this visit might prove instrumental in easing some of these issues?
SJ: I understand that the most common issues raised by investors are the issue of work visa renewal and residence permits. It would be useful if Indian companies/workers are provided with a quicker service of extension of their work visas and permits which would only attract more companies to set up shop in Egypt. It would also be a good gesture in Egypt's endeavour to attract FDIS by being friendlier towards foreign workers and foreign technicians. That would eventually improve the overall ease of doing business as well.
This visit definitely provided us an opportunity to review the entire gamut of our bilateral and multilateral relations and to exchange views covering a whole range of issues of mutual interest. I am confident that these engagements would definitely go a long way in improving our trade relations as well.