By Navroz Singh
Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
India’s Northeast is increasingly emerging as a critical factor in regional economic diplomacy. Policy analysts argue that until now, a reference to this region of India’s geographical construct has primarily owed to issues of security concerns, a trend witnessing rapid transformation through the changes in the region’s strategies of economic involvement and in New Delhi’s regional approach given the growing importance of this geo-strategic, yet underdeveloped landlocked region. On November 29th, an Indian prime minister touched down for an official visit in India’s Northeast for the first time since 2003. Walter Russell Mead, in the American Interest argues that Narendra Modi’s visit to the region has further helped in defining his agenda for reorienting Indian Foreign Policy towards stronger ties with Southeast and East Asia. The primary concentration of his efforts being the practical implementation of the Centre’s oft-repeated pledges to better integrate Northeast India with the perceived ‘Mainland’ and more importantly, with its international neighbours. With the new government under Mr. Modi renewing its focus on the neighbourhood since assuming power in May 2014, the northeast region has acquired unprecedented prominence, particularly in aligning the play of India’s regional diplomatic practices. It is in this context that the pursuit of this region as a ‘gateway’ and more importantly a significant connector to Southeast and East Asia is being vigorously promoted. This is indicated by recent developments and policy announcements. The seemingly ‘East-friendly’ PM as some would prefer to refer, does indeed have a strong vision, but its implementation would require careful treading and even more thoughtful and abrasively calculative manipulations to navigate a complex array of interests in the region, some of which, unfortunately, are not much pleased with the plans the Centre has proposed so far.
While the north-eastern region of India today enjoys a phenomenal above average standing on social indicators as literacy rates and infant mortality, the road to infrastructural development continues to be lined with policy-implementation potholes, attributed to a dizzying array of factors suggesting inextricable linkage amongst each perpetrating a sort of ‘domino-effect’ in practice. Persistent conditions of insurgency, deep-seated corruption, tensions and rivalries among the region’s 200 odd ethnic groups and more often than not, a sense of disinterested governance from Delhi create a vicious cycle of instability and fallacious governance paving a path of apparent doom, the symptoms of which are becoming, quite unfortunately, increasingly discernable. Narendra Modi’s four-day state visit to the north-eastern region was indeed extremely significant, politically and even otherwise. Modi is the second Indian PM after former PM HD Deve Gowda to stay in the region for several consecutive days to know the region closely through meetings with locals, political leaders and party representatives. Political analyst Tapas Dey, highlighting the problems of infrastructural underdevelopment seeks to draw emphasis on the state governments’ dependency on the centre given the constricted revenue resources and lack of established heavy industries in the region to deal with economic stagnancy. His prediction of the declaration of ‘state specific economic packages’ during his four-day tour finds resonance in the 2014-15 National Budget which earmarked INR 537 billion ($8.6 billion) for telecommunications and infrastructure projects in the north-east. During his visit to the states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura, Modi emphatically discussed the substance of his plans, most notably, the setting aside of INR 280 billion for new rail lines evident through the flagging off of the first train from Mendipathar in North Garo Hills of Meghalaya to Dudhnoi in Goalpara district of Assam. The cultural context of Modi’s visit was reflected in his initiative to inaugurate the Sangai Festival which showcases diverse cultures of Manipur and the Hornbill festival-Nagaland’s biggest annual festival-which also marked the creation of Nagaland as a separate state out of the erstwhile Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang Hill Tracts. Silencing the accusations slammed by critics of persistent ignorance being served to the north-eastern region particularly in matters concerning the development of industries central to state development, the PM inaugurated the second unit of the 726-MW power project in Palatana (southern Tripura), the biggest ever commercial power project commissioned by state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. Early morning tweets on the PM’s official Twitter handle on the day of the historic touchdown echoed the enhanced east-looking policy favoured by the PM. Highlighting the key role that the Northeast continues to play in the development of the Indian state owing to its rich natural resources and the immense talent of its youth, Modi positively declared the commitment of his government to “realising the potential of the Northeast” and ensuring the “acceleration of its progress” for as the PM opines, “India will not develop till the Northeast develops”.
The declaration of policy measures backed by centre-led initiatives evoked mixed responses from the region. Most prominently, the Assam Tribune criticized the “lack of substance” in Modi’s plan fold and the failure to deal with what constitutes, in their opinion, the “specifics: regional hydropower controversies and ongoing Assamese insurgent movements”. Patricia Mukhim, a Meghalaya based editor and Central Government advisor questioned Modi and his cabinet for choosing to ‘ignore’ her state in favour of visits aimed at ‘targeting the Assamese vote blocks’. Questions concerning policy relaxation of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act which governs the Indian military’s deep presence in the region and the apparent disappointment at the absence of a budget deficit relief package on par with Vajapyee’s announcement for the state of Nagaland in 2003 surrounded the closely followed Prime Ministerial visit to the region.
The increasing role envisaged by the Modi government for the north-east through the enhanced implementation of the Look East Policy (LEP), used intermittently by Indian Foreign policymakers to strengthen ties with the country’s eastern neighbours, though welcomed with consistent disagreements raises pertinent question on the significance of the region in shaping South Asian geopolitics. The North Eastern Region Vision 2020, a landmark policy planning document released in 2008 by the Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region argues in favour of increasing access to ASEAN by sea routes out of Bangladesh and “land routes through Myanmar and China” to establish a “meaningful Look East Policy”. Modi’s plans for the Northeast region particularly in terms of tighter relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh bolster the resolve of establishing an “economic corridor” to serve as a “gateway to Southeast Asia in future” and the agreement signed with Japan to this effect reflects the Government’s firmness in this regard. Prabhir De opines that the arrival of Modi at the helm of India’s political scene has promoted “renewed interest” by the Indian Government in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional integration forum whose slow progress till date has been attributed to a “lack of interest in India” by former Indian ambassador to Thailand and BIMSTEC proponent Ranajit Gupta. A favourable attitude formation towards the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC) can be expected given India’s policy of integration with China to boost trade and investment between the four countries constituting the membership of this Corridor.
Narendra Modi’s occupancy of the Prime Ministerial office marks a decisive break from past politics dominated by the dynastic ‘rule’ of the Nehru-Gandhi family perpetrating the rise of various politically fissiparous or as some may argue ‘democratically diverse’ forces with clashing opinions, giving birth to fractured mandates holding in doubt the future of regions such as India’s north-east. Writer and scholar Sekhar Datta argues that Modi’s visit to the region is immensely significant from the standpoint of geopolitics and economics. The priority given by New Delhi to this sensitive but often neglected region is indicative of his keenness to “strengthen BJP’s political base in northeast”. Realization of the significance of the geographical placement of the region which calls for constant attention from Delhi and major investment shall greatly benefit the region and its people and the hopes are strong for the continuation of the Government’s resolve towards the socio-economic infrastructural development of the region in times to come.
Navroz Singh is currently pursuing her undergraduate studies at Miranda House, University of Delhi majoring in Political Science. A voracious reader of economic, political and spiritual texts, she appreciates intelligent and controversial coffee table debates on art, history, culture, current affairs. She is particularly interested by the ‘Third World Perspective’ studies with the South Asian Region forming the core of her research interests. An avid debater, passionate writer, art connoisseur and travel enthusiast, she can be reached email@example.com