With invite to PM Modi oath-taking ceremony on May 30, India shifts focus on Bimstec
Leaders of the Bimstec nations, Kyrgyzstan, and Mauritius will attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi on Thursday, with the focus on the Bay of Bengal-centric grouping dovetailing with the India’s foreign policy initiatives to boost connectivity, security and development.
The decision to shift focus from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), whose leaders attended Modi’s inauguration in 2014, to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) was made because it was felt this was a more active grouping with greater potential, people familiar with developments said.
Bimstec also has a better fit with several key foreign policy initiatives of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government – the “neighbourhood first” policy, the Act East policy focused on India’s extended neighbourhood, and the Indo-Pacific policy, the people added.
Inviting the leaders of Bimstec to the inauguration also took care of another tricky issue confronting the NDA – how to maintain the focus on India’s neighbourhood without having to extend an invitation to Pakistan, given the rocky state of bilateral relations.
“There was a feeling that the action has shifted from Saarc to Bimstec in recent years. There is a lot going on in this grouping and several key projects are being taken up,” said an official who asked not to be named.
Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale oversaw the initiative to have the top leadership of Bimstec – which comprises Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan – and Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius at the swearing-in ceremony while the heads of different territorial divisions were deputed to get in touch with the concerned countries, the people said.
Invitations for the leaders of the nine countries were sent out on Monday after confirmations were received about their participation. A briefing on logistics and arrangements for diplomats of the seven countries was held at the external affairs ministry on Monday evening.
External affairs ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said the invitation to Bimstec states was “in line with the government’s focus on its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy”. Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the current chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, the chief guest at this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, have also been invited, he said.
Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena was the first Bimstec leader to confirm his participation in Modi’s inauguration, with an official in his office telling the media on Saturday that he would attend.
Bangladesh will send a delegation headed by a top leader as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set to begin a three-nation visit to Japan, Saudi Arabia and Finland on May 28, people familiar with the matter in Dhaka said.
Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering have confirmed their participation while President Win Myint is expected to represent Myanmar. Thailand, too, is expected to send a delegation led by a top leader, people familiar with developments said.
New Delhi has quietly shifted the focus to Bimstec since the last Saarc Summit, which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, stalled after India and several other countries pulled out due to terror-related concerns.
Bimstec covers 1.5 billion people in South Asia and South-east Asia and the region has a combined gross domestic product of $3.5 trillion. Originally formed in 1997 by Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, the grouping was later expanded with the inclusion of Myanmar in 1997, and Nepal and Bhutan in 2004.
Addressing the fourth Bimstec Summit in Kathmandu last August, Modi said: “This area of Bay of Bengal has a special significance for our development, security and progress. And, therefore, it is no surprise that the culmination of both India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’, happens in this region of the Bay of Bengal.”
Modi had also offered to host meetings for coastal shipping and motor vehicles agreements under Bimstec and said India’s “National Knowledge Network” would be extended to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand for greater digital connectivity. India’s northeastern region too will play an important role in increasing connectivity with Bimstec members, he said.
In September last year, India hosted the first military exercise of Bimstec states at Pune that focused on counterterror operations.