Looking East and Connecting People

Spotlight

At the 12th India-ASEAN meeting, India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj announced the drafting of a five-year Plan of Action for 2016-2021 while taking the ‘trajectories’ of common interest with the 10-member ASEAN grouping to a new level, and improving connectivity in the region to further boost trade and people-to-people contact. Never before in the history of our Look East policy has the necessity of giving it a new push by way of initiating a series of actions capable of producing visible and concrete results on ground was as deeply felt as it is now, insists Prof Samir Kumar Das

In her address to the 12th India-ASEAN meeting, India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj assured that India would always stand by the organisation and take the relationship forward so as to fulfil people’s aspirations for growth and development. She called for improvement of connectivity in all its dimensions — geographic, institutional and people-to-people, and referred to the ‘five Ts of the Government of India’ — Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology — as its priority areas. She noted the importance of connectivity when she said, “To the five Ts of the Government of India – Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology, I would like to reiterate the value of a ‘C’ before them all in foreign policy — the ‘C’ of Connectivity in all its dimensions, geographic, institutional and people-to-people. I would like this ‘C’ of Connectivity to translate into tangible and urgent action on the ground, bringing our capacities together to mutual benefit.”

A New Era in the Look East Policy

The address marks a departure from our conventional understanding of the ‘Look East’ policy, at least in two distinct ways: At one level, the address by the minister is clearly a call for what she describes as ‘tangible and urgent action’. Never before in the history of our Look East policy, has the necessity of giving it a new push by way of initiating a series of actions capable of producing visible and concrete results on ground was as deeply felt as it is now. She announced the drafting of a five year Plan of Action for 2016-2021 while taking the ‘trajectories’ of common interest with the 10-member ASEAN grouping to a new level and improving connectivity in the region to further boost trade and people-to-people contact.

At another level and as a corollary to the first, the address also underlines the need for adopting a people-centric approach to foreign policy in general, and LEP in particular. While it is only natural that such a policy should have been geared to the objective of rebuilding our cultural and economic ties with countries of South East Asia – lost for long for reasons not unknown to us – not much has hitherto been done to fulfil this objective. Policy declarations at different points of time helped raise people’s expectations, particularly in India’s northeast, while the official policy offered very little in terms of deliverables in order to address them. In fact, people-to-people contact was understood to mean how historically established contacts could be appropriately invoked and utilised in order to enhance our trade and commerce with these countries. People-to-people connectivity was never seen in its own right. The minister brought in what she calls ‘common aspirations of our people’ to bear on the very core of the policy and insisted that the policy ‘needs to be grounded in the geo-political realities of today and the common aspirations of our people for growth and development.’

One ASEAN Community

The address was significant also in the sense that it sought to identify some of the means through which such connectivity could be re-established with the ASEAN countries. She referred to the government’s suggestion that India, Myanmar and Thailand begin negotiations on a Transit and Transport Agreement at the earliest so that it could be concluded by the time the construction of the Trilateral Highway is complete in 2016. She also urged civil experts from respective sides to find ways to connect Tier II and Tier III cities in India to tourist and business destinations in ASEAN.

India maintains that policy should have ‘greater focus’ on areas such as education and vocational skills training, which would impact youth, and sectors of healthcare, pharmaceuticals and medical training, which impact the elderly in the respective countries. She also pointed out that India was reactivating websites and social media platforms in order to strengthen public dialogue between the people of India and ASEAN countries and constituting one ASEAN community by 2015. Further, it was felt that people-to-people connectivity was essential for developing tourism and business in India. In short, the idea is to take all necessary steps for promoting people-to-people connectivity for the establishment of a pan-ASEAN community.

Agenda for a Possible Debate

The minister’s address aptly sets forth the terms of a possible larger public debate as a preparation for the Action Plan (2016-2021). While the importance of re-establishing people-to-people connectivity can hardly be doubted, it is imperative that a series of institutional reforms be initiated before any such Action Plan is undertaken. In this connection, it will be instructive to point out the necessity of boldly experimenting with institutions that will make the anticipated people-to-people contact and the consequent exchanges and transactions between them across two or more sovereign states possible without destabilising our country or jeopardising our security and territorial integrity. Field researches point out that the reorganisation of international borders has not prevented members of the same community across borders from maintaining cultural and economic linkages. The challenge is to devise institutional alternatives that while providing opportunities of such exchanges and transactions do not tear the fabric of our body politic.

Never before in the political history of India since Independence has there been such an intense debate on institutional reforms, particularly with reference to India’s northeast, which opens to the ASEAN region through the frontline state of Myanmar. Reform-minded scholars and activists recommend a Scandinavian SAMI-like multi-layered parliamentary system in which ethnic communities scattered over different nation-states will have the right to represent themselves as a community instead of being bound by the territorial limits of existing nation-states. Often formation of a Regional Council for such communities is envisaged - where ethnic cousins from outside India will have a say in the cultural affairs of their community spread across the borders. Two, in a region where the members of the same groups and communities are strewn across international borders, it is important to see how they compel the institutional shape of citizenship itself to come to terms with the claims that have literally no part within it, and what transformations this might bring about in the prevailing citizenship regime in India.

Is the proposed people-to-people connectivity likely to open the floodgates and encourage undocumented and illegal migration across borders, as feared by a section of political analysts and commentators? Does India’s plea for re-establishing people-to-people contact run the risk of being eventually turned into a recipe for a great demographic disaster? One cannot but remind oneself of the historically existing continuities making it possible for the masses of people to cross borders almost on a regular basis and clandestinely melt into the vast multitude of ‘Indian nation’. Our studies seem to suggest that a large part of the migrants consists of the vast army of cheap and unskilled labour for which there is evidently great demand in our country. Much of the undocumented migration can be attributed to labour migration. The migrants are ready to work at lower wages compared to their local counterparts, unlikely to organise themselves and thus create pressure on their employers. Our studies also suggest that it is possible to reduce the extent of this migration through such measures as border fencing, more stringent border patrolling and raising people’s awareness; but it will perhaps be impossible to completely stop it. The fiasco of the six-year-long Assam movement (1979-1985) is a case in point. If there is a demand for their labour, is there a middle way by which we can ensure their exit after the period of work is over without letting them become Indian citizens?

The address has opened up many such questions and it is important that we take part in the debate before the Action Plan is formulated.  

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