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Giving peace a chance

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2014 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: It was an unprecedented, out-of-the-box initiative from the new Indian prime minister—invitations to the leaders of all South Asian countries to attend his oath-taking ceremony in New Delhi. Narendra Modi’s gesture was seen by analysts as an effort to redefine India’s foreign policy towards South Asia at the beginning of his five-year term after a spectacular election victory.

Sensing an opportunity to re-script and revitalize moribund ties, all governments in the region accepted the invitation. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deputed the country’s parliamentary speaker for the event because she had a pre-scheduled visit to make to Japan.

The 26 May swearing in ceremony of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Modi had in attendance Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bangladesh parliament speaker Shirin Chaudhry, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchen Tshering Tobgay, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. All, along with India, are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), an organization that will turn 30 years old in 2015.

Mauritius Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam, whose country is home to a large Indian-origin population, was also invited to join the inauguration of the BJP government—the first in 30 years to command a majority on its own in Parliament’s elected lower House.

“The prime minister has clearly indicated that he will look at innovative ways to reach out to India’s neighbours,” said a person familiar with the development on the Indian side. “The message (to India’s neighbours) is—we wish to be engaged with you. The neighbourhood is where our major interests are.” The person declined to be named.Sarvesh Sharma/Mint

According to analysts, Modi’s idea of giving the neighbourhood primacy is not new. “But what was innovative was the brilliant execution of the idea,” said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

“Modi’s invitation to the Saarc leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony is a good initial indicator that the BJP government will adopt a more pro-active foreign policy than its Congress party predecessor,” said Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank. “It is likely the new BJP regime will invest more energy into engaging its neighbours with an eye on boosting trade and economic linkages as well as on countering growing Chinese political influence in the region.

“There seems to be a growing recognition among the BJP leadership that India will not be able to achieve its global power goals without addressing the challenges in its own neighbourhood first,” she said in emailed remarks.

In terms of practice, Modi, 63, is the first Indian Prime Minister to extend such an invitation to foreign leaders. In the April-May elections, Modi led the BJP to victory in 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, making it the first party other than the Congress to win a parliamentary majority on its own. Together with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA, it won 336 with the help of its allies and handed the Congress its worst election defeat in its 128-year-old history. The Congress only managed to secure 44 seats on its own and 59 with the help of its alliance partners.

“For development, a periphery that is peaceful and friendly is important. And for this good neighbourly relations are a must to ensure that forces inimical to your interests do not hurt you,” said the person close to the development cited above.

Development, bringing India’s economy back to a high growth path and good governance were recurrent themes in Narendra Modi’s speeches throughout the poll campaign.

“From India’s perspective, a strong and promising beginning has been made at the start of the new government in our engagement with each of the countries in the South Asian region and with Mauritius,” Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh said.

“The very invitation to the Saarc leaders, which has never been done before when a new Prime Minister has been sworn into office, itself is new. That is the starting point,” she said. “In some ways, this is a new beginning, which many of them remarked that it is the first time that an occasion like this has brought the Saarc countries together,” Singh added.

South Asia has been an unpredictable region. Terrorism, political instability, insurgencies, competing territorial claims and poverty are some of the defining themes of the region that is home to a combined population of 1.65 billion people. As the largest country and economy in the neighbourhood, it is often argued within India and without that New Delhi needs to take the lead to resolve its own problems with its neighbours as well as those which crop up in the region.

“The new government is working on the basic premise that a resurgent India, if it has to find its place in the world, will have to get its relations with its neighbours right. Through this gesture, it has illustrated that this government is going to be proactive in its foreign policy and strengthening regional cooperation with Saarc and the Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) will be key priorities,” Mansingh said. Engagement further afield with countries in East Asia and the Pacific besides the US and Europe would follow, Mansingh said, noting that countries like the US and China were also looking to engage the new Indian government, sending officials to New Delhi.

Saarc was envisioned as an economic grouping along the lines of the European Union. It held its first summit in Dhaka in 1985 and ambitious plans for the grouping have included a common currency and open borders. But almost three decades into its existence, the grouping has little to show for itself.

Tensions between the two biggest countries in the grouping—India and Pakistan—have meant that most proposals to re-energize the body have come to nought. The latest commerce ministry figures show that India’s exports to the South Asian countries totalled $17.3 billion between April 2013 and March 2014. Imports from the region in the same period totalled $2.45 billion.

India’s total exports to the world in the same period stood at $312 billion while total imports were at $450 billion. India shares land borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh besides a maritime boundary with Sri Lanka.

The recast in ties between India and her neighbours is also expected to build up political and diplomatic capital in the region over which India’s strategic and economic rival China has been looming large. In recent years, China has made inroads into South Asia—long considered India’s backyard.

“We have a lot of advantages—historical and linkages, soft power—which we haven’t used to its potential. We need to harness this. This is something China doesn’t have though it has very deep pockets, which is helping it to gain ground in the region,” said S.D. Muni, a former professor of South Asian Studies from the New Delhi–based Jawahar Lal Nehru University.

Mansingh recalled that the BJP’s election manifesto had emphasized improved relations with its neighbours besides improving internal and external security. “Where does this threat emanate from? From India’s immediate neighbourhood—from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and to some extent even Myanmar,” Mansingh said. It is India’s immediate neighbourhood that is the source of jehadi or terrorism perpetuated by Islamist militants, entering India through porous borders and even finding sanctuaries in India’s neighbourhood, he said.

While primacy of the neighbourhood has been always listed as the top priority of the Indian government, few Indian leaders have actually acted on it, Mansingh said.

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not have much time for the neighbourhood, Mansingh said. “Such was his stature, no one questioned him and he ranked among world leaders,” he said.

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who later became prime minister, had good personal relations with almost all South Asian leaders. And the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh, established India’s supremacy in the region, Mansingh said.

However, India’s diplomatic capital with its neighbours plunged in subsequent years with the imposition of the economic blockade against Nepal in 1989 and India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka following a 1987 accord, Mansingh said.

With India opening up its economy in the 1990s and the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991, the then government in New Delhi concentrated on forging stronger relations with the US—the pre-eminent power in the world—and with the high growth economies of South East Asia with its Look East policy launched in 1992.

“The real changes in India’s foreign policy came at the time of (then BJP prime minister Atal Bihari) Vajpayee who paved the way for India to forge strategic partnerships with countries like the US, France, Britain and Germany,” Mansingh said. India’s 1998 atomic tests, which brought it out of the nuclear closet, was also an example of the complete re-orientation of Indian foreign policy, he pointed out.

The lead taken by Vajpayee was continued by prime minister Manmohan Singh but Singh “simply did not have time to deal with the neighbourhood” though he did underscore the importance of a peaceful neighbourhood for India’s economic growth, Mansingh said. Though he realized that India’s destiny was “inextricably linked” with that of its neighbours and argued for greater regional economic integration, the initiatives his government took did not go very far and relations with many of its neighbours frayed.

Ties with Pakistan hit a low following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which put on hold a four-year-old peace dialogue that was resumed after a 2004 visit to Pakistan by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Talks resumed in February 2011 but stalled again following the killing of Indian soldiers in Kashmir along the de facto border between the two countries.

Relations with Sri Lanka have been on an uneven keel since 2009, when the three-decade-old Tamil separatist conflict ended in the island nation. India has been pressing Sri Lanka to bring into the national mainstream the island’s minority Tamils, whose sense of alienation spawned the conflict. Succumbing to pressure from its key ally in Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government twice voted against Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

With Bangladesh, Singh’s government was seen as unable to deliver on key issues including ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement signed in 2011. Neither was Singh able to sign a pact to share waters of the Teesta river given opposition from a former coalition ally—West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party.

India’s neighbourhood policy received another jolt when the then Maldives government decided to terminate the $511 million contract given to an international consortium including India’s GMR Group in 2012. This came after India supported then Maldives president Mohammed Waheed Hassan, following accusations against Hassan of ousting his predecessor Mohamed Nasheed in a coup.

With Modi now at the helm, Indian foreign policy looks ready for “re-definition,” as Mansingh put it.

According to Muni, “What Modi seems to suggest is that there will be greater frequency of interaction and contacts with the neighbourhood at higher levels.”

If reactions from the region are anything to go by, Modi’s gesture has gone down well with India’s neighbours.

“I see a chance for the rejuvenation of Saarc,” Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan diplomat, said by phone from Colombo. “India’s dynamic new prime minister has given the neighbourhood long overdue importance. I am optimistic for the prospects for the region... there is every possibility of a takeoff for this region.”

Muni and Mansingh agreed that the meeting between Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Sharif had been “good,” with both sharing a good rapport—auguring well for peace in the region and the future of Saarc.

According to Curtis, Modi’s “invitation to Prime minister Nawaz Sharif was an unexpected and bold move that demonstrates he is committed to trying to set a positive tone in Indo-Pakistani relations. For the moment, he has shown himself as statesman and ready to address India’s foreign policy challenges.”

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