Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Modi and South Asia

 Engaging with South Asia should be one of the key objectives of India's new foreign policy

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, has assumed office in style.  Those who have been following him through the election campaign know that he is great in raising expectations. His speeches were powerful:  loaded with cliches of dynamism, development and growth that sparked the excitement of the crowd wherever he went. It gave them hope for change that India desperately needs.  This created the ‘Modi wave’, and it has successfully propelled the 63 year old to become India’s most powerful man.

The ‘Modi  wave’ didn't stop there.  No one really expected that he would fire his first salvo at India’s foreign policy by inviting the leaders of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) - India’s immediate neighbours- on his oath taking ceremony in New Delhi.  This well thought out plan took the entire south Asian region and the world by surprise. From Kabul to Dhaka, people were  jerked to take notice of the man who is going to take charge of the region’s most dynamic economy.  With the presence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, at this historic moment, Mr Modi turned his swearing in ceremony into a grand international event.

The Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must also be appreciated for seizing this opportunity to come down to India and give a fresh momentum to the stalled Indo- Pakistan peace process. It was under his and then India’s then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leadership (also from Modi’s BJP party) in 1999 that concrete efforts were made to improve the ties between the two countries, and a bus service was started between Delhi and Lahore. The efforts were later thwarted by the Kargil war. Mr Sharif now promises ‘to pick up the threads’.

The invitation of rest of the south Asian leaders sends out an important signal. The countries that make up SAARC(India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka)  are historically and  culturally connected to India. But over  the years,  due to a combination of factors that includes India’s  neglect  of the region coupled with high –handed attitude  meant that  India’s relationship with some of its neighbours, particularly Bangladesh,  have been patchy. India’s lukewarm engagement with its neighbours has made these countries to turn to China for economic help. The Chinese have been generous in dolling out millions for  infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. There is growing Chinese expats in Nepal, and not to mention about China’s ‘all weather’ friendship with Pakistan. New Delhi has been nervous about Chinese presence in India’s backward . Strategic experts warn of India being surrounded by the ‘string of pearls’.

India’s long term security and economic stability largely depends on the prosperity of its neighbours. As India’s economy grows, the region as a whole must benefit from it.  It is also important the countries must work together to fight the scourge of extreme poverty, climate change, human trafficking, drugs, insurgency, terrorism, migration,  HIV and other diseases. These are shared problems and have a knock on effect on each other. The  solutions have to found locally as they have a direct bearing on a common man.

Narendra Modi has demonstrated great statesmanship by inviting the SAARC leaders on the first day of his term. How will this translate in to action is difficult to say but it’s a great start. South Asia needs vision and a leadership and above all an environment of trust.  India as a powerful and big country  under leadership of Modi might want to show magnanimity by engaging constructively with its neighbours, and hopefully other countries will respond. This should be in the interest of the people that make up one fifth of the world’s population, majority of which lives with an income of less than $2 a day.