| by S. D. Muni
In the first 100 days, the SAARC invitation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to neighbouring capitals have greatly improved the atmospherics of the bilateral discourse and created hope for greater regional cooperation and synergy
( September 8, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Modi government’s neighbourhood initiative, which started even before the government was sworn-in, in the form of invitation to SAARC heads of Government and State, has widely been acclaimed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi established personal contacts with the SAARC leaders, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and paid two official visits to Bhutan and Nepal. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj reactivated India-Nepal Joint Commission meetings after 23 years by visiting Kathmandu and paid visits to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Foreign Secretary-level talks were scheduled between India and Pakistan despite violations of ceasefire on the Line of Control and international border, ignoring Modi’s campaign position that while bombs and guns boom, we cannot talk meaningfully.
India, however, pulled back from these talks as a result of the PMO-led intervention, which insisted on Pakistan discontinuing its parleys with Kashmir’s separatist Hurriyat Conference leaders on the eve of the talks.
The SAARC invitation and the visits to neighbouring capitals greatly improved the atmospherics of the bilateral discourse and created hope for greater regional cooperation and synergy. It gave Indian leaders the feel of political terrain as well as developmental expectations from India, in the neighbouring countries through personal contacts with the diversity of local leaders. In Bangladesh, Sushma Swaraj set at rest her hosts’ anxieties on the BJP campaign rhetoric against illegal immigrants and promised that Land and Teesta Agreements would be expeditiously concluded. Modi’s eloquent addresses in Bhutan’s Parliament and Nepal’s Constituent Assembly not only sought to bridge the trust deficit with India but gave assurances that India would stand by these countries in their respective searches for security, stability and development. His use of catchy phrases like B 4 B in Bhutan i.e. Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat, and in Nepal, Youdh se Bhuddha, (from war to peace) and Shastra se Shastra (from arms to scriptures/Constitution) to hail Nepal’s peace process of the Maoists joining the mainstream, promised a new Indian approach towards neighbours.
There were, however, no major breakthroughs in the neighbourhood initiative, and the withdrawal from talks with Pakistan was indeed amounted to be a breakdown. With settling of the euphoria of the visits, voices of sceptics and critics in the neighbouring countries as also within India, have started rising. The Modi government has come under strong criticism on the cancellation of talks with Pakistan. The Kashmir Assembly has even passed a resolution urging for restarting the talks and engaging Pakistan to promote bilateral ties. In Bangladesh, anxiety continues to centre on the critical pending agreements on Teesta water sharing and the Land Border. In Nepal, much-hyped Power Trade Agreement (PTA) and the Project Development Agreement (PDA) could not be signed. Modi has promised to renegotiate with Nepal, the Treaty of 1950, but there is no meaningful response from Nepal yet as to what it really wants in the revised treaty. There is no progress on a host of other issues, too, related to trade and transit, pending border demarcation and border management and rail and road link projects.
As for Sri Lanka, while bilateral ties are smooth, Modi’s firm reiteration of the implementation of the 13th Amendment in his one-to-one meeting with President Rajapaksha did not go well with the latter. The high-profile subsequent visit of Tamil delegation from Jaffna and Sushma Swaraj’s emphasis on accommodation of Tamil rights has not eased Colombo’s anxieties.
It is indeed unrealistic to expect major developments in India’s neighbourhood policy in 100 days. However, the gaps between promise and performance in Modi’s initiatives can be accounted on two factors. To begin with, there was a clear lack of careful planning and preparations on India’s part. It is unfair to blame Modi for calling off talks with Pakistan on account of the Hurriyat issue. It was wrong on India’s part to concede to this practice to begin with, where Pakistan is allowed to speak on behalf of the people of Kashmir, and that, too, through Hurriyat briefing. Modi government’s sensitivity to discontinue this practice was expressed to Nawaz Sharif when he was visiting to attend Modi’s oath taking. Neither Pakistan understood this sensitivity properly nor was the Indian diplomatic establishment alert to caution Pakistan well in advance of the talks. Modi had done well to issue a statement before his visit to Japan that India remains prepared to talk to Pakistan on all issues, implying including Kashmir, if Hurriyat dimension is abandoned. One hopes that Modi’s this insistence is not confined to electoral calculations in coming Kashmir elections.
In case of Bangladesh, anxieties aroused on account of Modi’s campaign could be set at rest through diplomatic channel but Sushma Swaraj should have delayed her visit and prepared to resolve at least one of the two issues of Teesta and Land Agreement in view of the government’s comfortable parliamentary majority. Here again, the Modi government seems to be in a bit of a bind. The BJP wants to consolidate and expand its base in West Bengal and, therefore, it is in no mood to accommodate Bangladesh on the pending issues, lest Mamata’s TMC exploits such accommodation. In case of Nepal, the hurriedly prepared text of PTA sent on the eve of Modi’a visit did more harm then good. Modi’s omission of ‘secular’ qualification for Nepal’s evolving Constitution and his robust projection of Hindu identity through special prayers in Pashupatinath temple, has left Nepal’s minorities a bit uncomfortable.
One hopes that Modi’s diplomatic establishment is streamlined to move with greater care in pushing forward the new approach of pro-active engagement with the neighbours. But a bigger challenge to this approach, in fact, lies in the neighbouring countries. All these countries are politically deeply polarised with approach towards India being a major fault line in all of them. Pakistan’s internal conflict between the civilian regime and the army is perhaps the biggest of such divides. But divide on India policy is not insignificant even in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Unless this polarisation is softened and India is taken out of the internal power rivalries, competitions and prejudices in these countries, there may be no easy way ahead.
— The writer is a Professor Emeritus, JNU, Delhi