Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done it again. Leaving the pundits speechless, he has led his party, the BJP, to its second consecutive victory, with a thumping majority in the Lok Sabha.
As he readies to take the oath of office for the second time, he is reiterating an unequivocal message on the foreign policy front – neighbourhood first – but with a caveat.
Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, a humanist, poet and statesmen, had mused – “We can change history but not geography. We can change our friends but not our neighbours.” An avowed admirer of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, PM Modi is making bold to tweak the truism, by attempting to alter the perception of ‘geography’ and ‘neighbourhood’, if not actually changing it.
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How Pakistan ‘Rewarded’ Our Overtures Of Friendship
In an unprecedented move and to celebrate the good-neighbourly spirit, Modi had invited all SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan appeared to reciprocate the sentiment, and over the ensuing period both of them tried to dial down tensions. Mr Modi even made an impromptu halt at Lahore on 25 December 2015 to strengthen the détente and felicitate his counterpart on his birthday. The bonhomie between the two elected leaders was perceptible.
However, the deep state in Pakistan, comprising the army, jihadis and ISI, that control the real levers of power, was not amused.
They returned the favour with promptitude, by staging an audacious terror attack on the Pathankot Air Force base on 2 January 2016.
It added another chapter to the never-ending saga of India taking peace initiatives and the Pakistani establishment squashing them resolutely. The hapless Nawaz Sharif was once again booted out of power, the following year, on trumped up charges.
It may be recalled that PM Vajpayee’s historic ‘Bus Yatra’ to Lahore in February 1999, carrying a peace message was similarly ‘rewarded’ with the Kargil misadventure in May through July. It cost us the lives of over five hundred brave soldiers, who were martyred while neutralising the invasion. It is noteworthy that on both occasions it was the so-called nationalist NDA government that made the peace overture.
From ‘Look East Policy’ To ‘Act East Policy’
All the same, our neighbour has never shied away from compulsive and unrelenting hostility, even at the cost of shooting itself in the foot. Take SAARC for example. Islamabad has systematically stymied its efficacy, by blocking forward movement and injecting bilateral issues (with India), which is contrary to its Charter. Consequent to the Uri terror attack in September 2016, India along with Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka pulled out of the 19th summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016.
Adopting a pragmatic approach, the NDA government has rightly decided against having more SAARC summits, in the present fraught atmosphere.
India has similarly turned lukewarm towards NAM, G77 and IBSA which have more or less outlived their utility.
India has instead opted to boost neighbourhood cooperation through BIMSTEC, and with the extended neighbourhood through the ASEAN mechanism, besides vigorously engaging with key groupings like BRICS, G20 and SCO.
That was the primary motivation for the repositioning of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’ in 2014 itself.
The same geopolitical outlook has prompted the incoming administration to invite BIMSTEC, Kyrgyz and Mauritian leaders to the 30 May swearing-in ceremony of Mr Modi for a second term. It speaks volumes of India’s standing and the PM’s stature, that the invitation, extended barely four days ago, has been readily accepted. Kyrgyzstan will be hosting the next SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit on 13-14 June. PM Modi will be attending it and so will PM Imran Khan of Pakistan. PM Pravind Jugnauth of Mauritius is of Indian-origin and was the chief guest at the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, held in Varanasi in January this year. The NDA government has been very mindful of the sensitivities of the NRIs, who have reciprocated in ample measure.
BIMSTEC Nations Maintain Healthy Growth Rate, But Cooperation Scorecard Must Improve
Conceived in 1997, the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) comprises Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. Its secretariat is in Dhaka. The BIMSTEC website describes the grouping as ‘a bridge between South and South East Asia … (as also)… a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN members’. The BIMSTEC region is home to 1.7 billion people or around 22 percent of the global population.
Significantly, in recent years, BIMSTEC nations have maintained a healthy growth rate despite a global slowdown. Its combined GDP has crossed USD 3.5 trillion.
On the eve of the 4th BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu in August 2018, a senior MEA official had stated – ‘For India, BIMSTEC is a natural choice to fulfil our foreign policy priorities which is our Neighbourhood First and Act East policy. Regional cooperation under BIMSTEC also extends to developments of the Northeastern states of India, forming a bridge between South and South East Asia’.
A renewed emphasis on connectivity is in evidence since 2016.
All the same, the score-card of cooperation thus far has been underwhelming. Member-states need to raise their game considerably to make BIMSTEC attractive.
Conspicuously Absent From Modi’s Guest List
The invitees to the 30 May event constitute half the story. The other half, as interestingly, pertains to neighbours that did not make the cut. PM Modi is likely to pay his first overseas visit to Maldives, which perhaps explains its omission from the guest list. Pakistan’s case is sui generis. What is conspicuous is the absence of an invitation to Kabul.
By any yardstick Afghanistan should have been on the guest list.
We have historically enjoyed the closest of ties with this valiant nation and have invested some USD 3 billion in building capacities since 2001. The Afghans look upon India as a friend and ally. One school of thought is that New Delhi did not wish to be seen as pointedly ignoring Islamabad. But that is contrived logic which convinces no one. Since the Pulwama massacre of February 2019, India has gone all out to expose Pakistan, besides taking a series of pre-emptive measures short of snapping diplomatic ties. There is no point posturing otherwise.
‘If Pak Continues To Be A Naysayer, India Will Isolate It’
What has stood out this time is India’s muscular and calibrated response.
Being the largest economy and nation in South Asia, India has always sought co-prosperity for her neighbours. But given Pakistan’s perfidy, PM Modi introduced a caveat post-Uri, that there would be a cost to Pakistan’s misadventures. And secondly that India will not be held to ransom.
If Pakistan continues to be a naysayer, India will isolate it and move on. That precisely is the rationale of inviting BIMSTEC ‘plus’ nations to the big event.
Pakistan Remains In Denial
As is its wont, Pakistan remains in denial. Imran Khan is a creation of the Army, and meticulously toes its line. His calls for dialogue and for ‘more evidence’ are disingenuous. It is nothing but a tried and tested ploy to buy time to allow the huge international pressure to dissipate. The FATF is close to placing Islamabad on its ‘Black List’ for continuing with terror financing. The country’s economy is in a free fall. It is tapping the doors of its few friends and allies for financial bailouts. India needs to stay the course.
However, in the highly unlikely event of Pakistan abjuring violence and taking irreversible steps to dismantle its terror infrastructure, India would be the first to welcome it and engage in constructive cooperation with Pakistan.
(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)