Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reconfirmed that Right-wing nationalist governments are the ones which are confident enough to carry out unconventional diplomatic acts when it comes to Pakistan.
The South Asian summit that was put together for Mr Modi’s swearing-in ceremony not only invoked memories of AB Vajpayee and the bus to Lahore but also the dismal Agra summit that followed. This is statesmanship with a hard edge of risk and it was pulled off with aplomb. However, the bilateral discussion between Mr Modi and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif showed again that the issues of terrorism and territory can never go away when the two nations just talk to each other. The hope is that the two — both coming from mercantile communities — will push ahead with the normalisation of trade and investment relations and immunise this from the normal bilateral ups and downs.
It is important to remember that pushing forward on relations with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and other South Asian neighbours is also at the heart of India’s diplomatic activity. Until recently, India has suffered from a poor image in most of these countries. When elections were held there, each contending party vied to be more anti-Indian than the other. Many of these countries turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s use of their territories to carry out terrorism against India. That has changed. Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh have seen diminution in anti-Indian sentiment. There is an opportunity for India to resolve the bilateral thorns that bedevil its neighbourhood relationships. UPA 2 recognised this opportunity but failed to capitalise on this, the most notable failure being its inability to sign a package deal offered by Bangladesh on everything from the border to trade, water to transit.
Grabbing the low-hanging fruit is more than just about feeling good. There are security and economic benefits for India if it can integrate economically and politically with its smaller neighbours. The problems involved here are not as intractable as those with Pakistan. It should also be recognised that India cannot expect to be a major influence on the world stage if it cannot solve niggling issues with a Bhutan or the Maldives. No one should expect diplomacy in a hurry to lead to substantive gains. But diplomacy of symbolism can help to shape atmosphere, disperse negative public feelings and help buffer against bad news in the future. And none of these are small things when it comes to the volatile South Asian subcontinent.