Last Monday, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj met Indian ambassadors to neighbouring countries. Each diplomat briefed her about the state of domestic politics in the countries where they represent the Indian state, key bilateral issues, and the state of the relationship Delhi has with the government and other actors. Swaraj listened, offering no formulation of her own. And at the end, she summarised all that the ambassadors had said. A diplomat present at the meeting later told HT, “We were all impressed. She did not take notes, but she listened carefully. And her summary was masterly.”
When asked if she gave a glimpse into what the government’s specific policies towards the neighbours would look like, the source replied, “No. The new political dispensation has been guarded in offering specifics. But that is a good thing. They have been out for 10 years. They need to learn and pick up. But what is clear is that the neighbourhood and strengthening economic linkages will be a key priority.”
The neighbourhood thrust has been driven by PM Narendra Modi himself. In a month, look at the range of activity. He invited SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, and had one-on-one meetings with all of them. Modi is learnt to have largely listened to advice and briefings of the ministry of external affairs in these conversations, indicating a degree of continuity in the messages. He subsequently exchanged letters with Nawaz Sharif and visited Bhutan on a goodwill trip.
Swaraj herself was in Dhaka last week meeting both the Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition in a polarised polity; and there is a strong possibility Modi may visit Nepal in early August. This is all good news. The previous UPA government too had understood the need for a ‘peaceful periphery’ and pushed the idea of connectivity across the region. The problem, however, was that this policy formulation was not backed by adequate political will.
Manmohan Singh did not visit Pakistan or Nepal; he could not deliver on promises to Bangladesh despite Dhaka cracking down on anti-Indian elements and stepping up security cooperation; the government bungled up in Bhutan by appearing to influence its election outcome last year; it was torn between whether to engage or isolate Colombo to get it to deliver on Tamil rights; and it got dragged into internal politics in Maldives when the nascent democratic government was removed.
PM Narendra Modi with the President and leaders of some neighbouring countries at his swearing in ceremony. (Reuters photo)
Modi will face similar challenges, for the problem for successive Delhi regimes is three-fold. One, India is demographically the largest, and economically and militarily the most powerful state in the region. This creates obvious insecurities all around.
India is also in a unique position where it shares borders with each neighbouring state, but most of the neighbours do not share a border with each other. The asymmetry has led to a second conundrum. India often gets enmeshed in the internal politics of neighbouring countries. It is seen as having taken sides in political battles in Dhaka, Male, Kathmandu, Colombo, and even Thimphu — and those who feel Delhi is not with them turn resentful. The third issue is the unique India-Pakistan dynamic which often holds the rest of the region hostage.
The government has got off to the right start by sending out correct messages, and getting the symbolism right on South Asia. But the real test will be when it is called to make hard choices about domestic politics of some of these countries; when it has to make concessions on the bilateral front bypassing interest groups within the country; when it has to cope with the rising engagement of China in what Delhi traditionally sees as its ‘sphere of influence’; when it has to respond to actions of non-state actors, especially from Pakistan, who may seek to disrupt ties; and when it has to translate its vision into policy.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid with Sushma Swaraj during the latter’s visit to Dhaka. (AFP photo)
Against this backdrop, HT invited politicians, writers and analysts from Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives to outline their hopes, expectations and apprehensions about the new Indian government. Here is a sample of how the region sees Narendra Modi.
Beyond borders: What they think of PM Modi
People to people contact needed: Gagan Thapa, Nepal
Despite being a unique region with people sharing the same social and cultural traditions, economically South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Our regional cooperation suffers mainly because we are still emotionally involved in history. South Asian leaders must explore a new paradigm for regional cooperation.
Nepal has got back on democratic rails following the November 2013 elections and needs to shed nearly two decades of political uncertainty, using the advantages of political stability in a democracy. Economic growth and social advancement in Nepal will positively impact the neighbouring Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and others, and vice versa.
Nepal-India relations can be cemented further by encouraging ‘people to people’ contacts by linking people with business and supporting cross-border projects. To achieve this, infrastructural connectivity is the key. Already, the two countries enjoy an open border. Now, we must work to improve a network of transmission lines, customs procedures, and value-added manufacturing. Given China and India’s impressive growth, Nepal, naturally, wants to encourage and gain from the expanding exchange between these two global economic giants.
Even as we both move forward in a world where democracy must deliver better livelihoods and as Nepal proceeds to consolidate its democracy through the writing of a new constitution, it will be important for the political class in New Delhi to re-engage with the political class in Nepal, something that has been left foundering these past few years to the detriment of both countries and economies.
(Thapa is a member of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly and a leader of the ruling Nepali Congress)
Thimphu Modi-fied for Indian PM: Namgay Zam, Bhutan
The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, underwent quite a “Modi-fication” ahead of PM Narendra Modi’s first foreign trip. Streets were decorated, and mass cleanups were organised. “What do we do when we expect a guest at home? We clean our homes!” tweeted PM Tshering Tobgay ahead of Modi’s visit.
Thimphu was so clean that many Bhutanese sent out informal invitations to Modi on social media asking him to visit the country often. Anxiety had been growing among ordinary Bhutanese. Generations of Bhutanese had become accustomed to Congress rule in India, so BJP was unfamiliar and the nervousness, therefore, natural.
Modi’s visit laid several doubts to rest. He even coined a new term that found immense traction among Bhutanese: B4B, Bharat for Bhutan and vice versa. But, the “Nepal and Ladakh” slip is not going to be forgotten anytime soon. Young Bhutan is critical, ambitious, and sometimes resentful about adjusting to a changing world order.
The wonderful history of Indo-Bhutan friendship may not be enough to sustain the unique bond of trust between the two countries for eternity. The friendship needs to evolve to accommodate Bhutan’s aspirations as being independent and not divergent. Bhutan is not just a “zero trouble” neighbour, Bhutan genuinely believes in and respects the exceptional fraternal bond engendered by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Bhutan attempted to articulate this to Modi. Flowers were growing in places where they never grew before in Thimphu in anticipation of Modi. That Modi can do that is also the expectation.
(Zam is an independent Bhutanese journalist)
Time to redress past wrongs?: Aishath Velezinee, Maldives
Narendra Modi taking over as Prime Minister of India is welcomed by democrats in the Maldives as an opportunity to redress what appears to a majority of the people of Maldives as a wrong by the Indian government in their hasty endorsement of the February 7, 2012 change of power.
“India cannot afford not to take the lead in addressing the rise of fundamentalism and radicalization in the Maldives, and Prime Minister Modi must be willing to take decisive action to address these critical issues,” says former foreign minister of Maldives, Ahmed Naseem. Events since, have highlighted the rise of fundamentalism in the Maldives and its threat not only to the Maldivian people, but to India and regional security.
Further, the case of GMR’s eviction from the Maldives and the role played in it by the radicals, the government of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, and the Supreme Court has now exposed India’s shortsightedness in aligning with the opposition in 2012 to legitimize a cleverly plotted return of the old dictatorial regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to power albeit under the leadership of Gayoom’s half brother.
Given the current situation of a government aligned with radicals and brought to power in the 2013 elections manipulated by the Supreme Court as noted unanimously by international observers, the onus is now on India, and Modi, to attain the confidence of the people of Maldives through decisive actions to address extremism and radicalization in the Maldives. Were India to lag behind in promoting a democratic government, it may well lose its current standing as a regional leader.
(Velezinee is a freelance writer and member of the Maldivian Democratic Party)
Indo-Lanka bond likely to shift: Ahilan Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka
Indo-Lanka relations are likely to shift given the strong government in India. Over the last two decades, the lack of political will resulted in an indecisive Indian foreign policy towards Sri Lanka. What does the new regional political configuration mean for the future of the Sri Lankan people, including the Tamil and Muslim minorities?
The Palk Bay fishing conflict has become increasingly tense. The fisheries issue that affects the livelihoods of 200,000 Tamils and Muslims in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka is now being cynically manipulated. Unless, Tamil Nadu reassesses its approach, it may become irrelevant in the future of Lankan Tamils. Next, will the Modi government be able to prevail on the Rajapaksa government to devolve power as per the 13thAmendment and go beyond it?
Devolution has been the policy of Indian governments over the last 25 years, but the Rajapaksa government continues to evade devolution due to its Sinhala Buddhist nationalist projection. Finally, the Modi government is likely to change the Indian economy through neoliberal reforms. That will reinforce neoliberal policies in Sri Lanka, including privatisation of education and further financialisation. The resulting crisis may strengthen chauvinist forces, as evident from the recent anti-Muslim mobilisations in Sri Lanka.
Given the Hindu nationalist and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist political bases of the respective regimes and their commitment to neoliberal policies, progressives in both countries should be vigilant about the consolidation of authoritarianism, attacks on minorities and the unpredictable future of Indo-Lanka relations.
(Kadirgamar is a political economist and researcher based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka)
Modi invitation surprised Pak: Mosharraf Zaidi, Pakistan
Pakistanis have generally known India’s new PM through the single lens of the Gujarat riots of 2002. So the invitation PM Modi extended to PM Nawaz Sharif was a bold, unexpected and brilliant move. It took Pakistan and Pakistanis by surprise. Wasn’t he the one in charge when the Gujarat riots took place? Isn’t this guy supposed to hate us? Like a well-timed doosra, it put Pakistan in a tricky spot.
Bolder still was PM Sharif’s acceptance. He was knee-deep in a domestic crisis that had civil-military imbalance written all over it. Going to India was like walking out of his crease and swinging for six. By the time he had got back home, the conversation in Islamabad was not whether he should have gone. The conversation was how Pakistan-India relations will move forward. Six, indeed. Kashmir will always be an issue.
Closure on the Mumbai attacks doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Seemingly smaller problems, like Sir Creek and Siachen have grown in stature. Maybe they’re getting away from resolution too. So what was the point of having the two prime ministers get to know each other? For starters, it was a starter. The dialogue has been stuck in first gear for ages. The two prime ministers are big business nationalists that won’t easily be called traitors to the nation. This helps. It also helps that they both have clarity about what they want to do.
If India’s PM can pull off a couple more surprise deliveries that Pakistan’s PM knows how to handle and dispatch, South Asia may be in for a big, transformational change. The superhawks in both countries will be worse off for it. Which is why they will resist. Lucky for South Asia that neither Modi or Sharif scare easy.
(Zaidi is a Pakistani columnist and former diplomat. He currently runs an education campaign in Islamabad)