By Aadya Sinha
Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
On inviting the SAARC leaders to their swearing in ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, held a press conference, through Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh. Journalists from over 80 media houses were invited to ask questions about the bilateral meetings that had concluded an hour ago. Singh dutifully spoke of the crux of each meeting pausing for questions. What appeared to me to be the defining moment in foreign policy coverage in India was after speaking about the signing of a hydro-electric power project between India and Bhutan. A hand was raised during the routine pause. Pleasantly surprised, Singh smiled and gestured at the journalist to continue. Pausing for a dramatic effect, the journalist began, “Ma’am, actually I had a question about the talks with Nawaz Sharif”
India, a state with a major power deficit, looking to import power for the time it takes to shift to renewable energy resources had just signed a deal on the joint production of power! Bhutan, a known voice, opposing India’s ‘regional bully’ role, was ready to collaborate! Yet, no publication gave more than a cursory mention of the project. Security is essential, but it’s not the only field that concerns the realm of foreign policy.
Still, in a refreshing change from limiting itself to our sister state and Uncle Sam, the NDA government seems to be making the right noises in terms of foreign policy. The bilateral meeting served as a good opportunity for rapport-formations, especially with those neighbors who are strangers to the new NDA government and Modi. While, India needs to be cautious about China as the dragon continues to increase its soft power and structural impact on geo-politics, the neighborhood has been ignored for far too long.
The ASEAN (Association of South Asian Nations) is a prime example of a successful regional organization, which the SAARC needs to learn from. Bonding over shared colonial past and values, the region is past emerging as an alternate centre of power. In order for India to look further east, SAARC needs to move beyond the perfunctory organization that it has come to represent. India, as the largest and most centrally located country, needs to stop behaving like a passive-aggressive preacher and take an active role in the region. It is the constant flip-flop between being a mute observer and an active regional hegemony that has a caused a deficit in trust in the region.
The Indian intelligence is powerful enough to sense building tremors in the region; this information should be used to be more proactive rather than reactive. With the Americans and the NATO becoming inactive in Afghanistan, the responsibility falls upon India to monitor the situation. It is only an added incentive, that the lack of control over such fringe elements means disturbances over the entire region, including India.
The Maoist threat from Nepal, mercenaries from Maldives, chicken neck corridor with Bangladesh and Tamil diaspora in Sri Lanka, are just few of the issues that the government needs to deal with. It would be a shame, if in being populist another CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) conference is missed, ruining future relations over a ruined past. At the same time, zero-tolerance for disturbances in India needs to be reinforced strongly.
India, being the only country in the region with enough influence to ensure an environment conducive for trade and development needs to prioritize signing of FTA’s (Free Trade Areas) and creation of regional SEZ’s (Special Economic Zones). Trade regulations for these neighbors should also be simplified, to encourage trade.
On the other hand, the region should focus on moving from simply a labor exporting market, to exporting more manufactured goods and services. This is only possible with regional cooperation; India’s predicted rise to glory will be catalyzed by ensuring a strong and stable neighborhood. While adopting a common currency like the EU is a little too extreme, greater collaboration is required.
Culture is a convenient tool in the expansion of India’s soft power influence. Non-state entities like yoga, Bollywood and cricket finds it easier to travel across the lines of control and disputed territory. At the same time, all one has to do, is tune into a soap opera of any of the SAARC countries to see the similarities in culture, providing fertile ground for fostering unity. Experiencing the same brain-drain and inflation crunch, the region is more adept when together.
At the same time, collaboration does not entail disarmament, while confidence- building measures help build trust; it is the arms race that acts as the real deterrent through mutually assured destruction. Even as, collaboration and active sharing of intelligence is a must, without internal security as a cornerstone, India is susceptible to attack in this extremely volatile region.
However, with an able Foreign Minister and the interlinkage of external affairs with all others ministries, implies a Prime Minister who can stand on his own is required to avoid a repeat of the Sharm-el-Sheikh debacle.With the no-nonsense image that he has in political circles, Modi needs to reiterate India’s sovereignty and devotion to ‘India First’. It would be highly disappointing if he is unable to continue with a relevant outlook after the rejuvenation we have seen in external affairs. The paradigm shift in geo-politics means that the world has started looking east. It’s high time we act.
Aadya is your textbook bibliophile, as redundant as that statement sounds out loud. She finds solace in all that is and all that can be written. She is also utterly obsessed with politics, as a’pol’ing as it might get.