BY SONIA WEST
During his visit here in BC, Ajay Bisaria, High Commissioner of India to Canada, sat down with Drishti Magazine for an interview. He speaks about India and Canada’s positive, collaborative partnership during an unsettling time in history, while facing a global health crisis.
His Excellency has had the privilege of serving in multiple geographies, starting with Russia, his specialization; he is fluent in Russian. He went to Germany, and to the United States of America, wherehe worked at the World Bank. He was India’s ambassador to Poland, then to Pakistan.
“Often people say that my career path sounds like that of a Cold War spy because it took me to Moscow, Berlin, Washington, Warsaw, and Islamabad,” he quips, revealing his keen sense of humor.
He draws inspiration from India’s founding fathers. “We are celebrating the 75th year of India’s independence. I have been reading and thinking about the founding fathers, not just Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, but others like Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr Ambedkar, who helped write the Indian constitution. I’ve been reading some of the constituent assembly debates when the Indian Republic was being conceived; they were transparently debating what kind of country they wanted to create. They had a keen understanding of the post-colonial experience of a country, they had the vision to embark on a hugely successful experiment in democracy.”
His own vision is to continue to build strong trade relations between India and Canada who have a solid economic partnership that has developed and strengthened over the last five years.
“We want this economic partnership to be leading the political relationship because that is to the advantage of both countries. The investment by Canada in India, portfolio investment, was about 5 billion dollars in 2015. Today it is 60 billion dollars of investment, mainly by pension funds and investment firms; Canada punches well above its weight. The largest investor in India globally is Brookfield of Canada, with a portfolio of about 20 billion dollars. The first unicorn to come out of India in 2021 is an insurance company, Digit Insurance promoted by Fairfax Canada. So I think there are numerous developments in the economic partnership that are very strong.” A great deal of credit, he feels, goes to the diaspora of 1.6 billion people of Indian origin.
Over 60% of the population of India is under the age of 30. These Indians will be in the productive age group when Europe, Canada, and China are aging. India will be reaping the demographic dividend in the next 3 decades. “We need to skill them. They become a global resource because they are traveling, they are coming to Canada. To skill them, give them educational opportunities, is important to realise the vision of becoming a 5 trillion economy by 2025, 10 trillion by the end of the decade.”
A measure of strategic partnership between nations is how you react to a crisis. When the crisis struck, India and Canada coordinated very closely. This first challenge was to help people stranded in both countries. “We created an air bubble, a corridor where initially Air India and Air Canada flew, despite the travel ban in both countries, so that people could get home during the pandemic.”
When Canada needed vaccines, Prime Minister Trudeau called Prime Minister Modi, and India delivered vaccines; subsequently, when India went through a brutal second wave, Canada was one of the first to send oxygen equipment to India.
Now there is an Indo-Canadian vaccine being formulated. Providence Therapeutics in Alberta is coordinating with an Indian company called Biological E in Hyderabad. They are jointly developing a messenger RNA vaccine which is in a third stage trial. It is so promising that the government of India has pre-ordered 300 million doses.
Empathy is essential to him and remains a central policy objective. He shares one of his favorite quotes from Gandhi with us, “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him, Will he gain anything by it? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.”
We ask him, what did you dream of becoming when you were a little boy? He laughs, saying, “I wanted to be an astronaut.”
For now, he will have to settle for being the High Commissioner of India to Canada, as he speaks his final thought.
“When I look at my career over the last three decades, it’s been part of India’s journey. The ride is not always smooth in times of disruption, for a country or an individual. It’s been fascinating, and it’s been interesting, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”