After tryst with destiny in South Asia, Modi eyes extended neighbourhood

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World was eager to know which way India would move under the new dispensation. Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardass Modi signalled on the first day the need for the member countries of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – the body that includes India – to work in perfect cooperation, keeping aside the differences and present a united face before the world. There is a need to learn from each others’ success stories like micro-finance in Bangladesh, tourism in Maldives and environment and ecological conservation in Bhutan.

On the very day of taking oath as the country’s 15th prime minister on May 26, leaders of the 8-nation SAARC and Mauritius, a member country of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), were invited to be a part of the ceremony. In fact, it was the first time for any foreign head of state or government to attend the oath-taking ceremony of an Indian prime minister.

Beginning his tryst with destiny in South Asia, Modi intends to extend his diplomacy to immediate neighbourhood like ASEAN, East Asia, Central Asian Republics, Africa and further to Latin America, making India the pivot of diplomatic activities and future geopolitics. He has entrusted the country’s first woman External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj to do adequate spadework.

Incidentally, Modi’s immediate predecessor Manmohan Singh began his tenure as prime minister honeymooning with 7-nation BIMSTEC group and incidentally, as part of his foreign diplomacy, ended his two successive terms in office by attending the third BIMSTEC Summit in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar on March 4, 2014. He attended the first BIMESTEC Summit in Bangkok, Thailand on July 31, 2004 after taking over as country’s prime minister on May 22. He presided over the second BIMSTEC Summit on November 13, 2008.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), however, does not include SAARC members like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives, but has members like Myanmar and Thailand. Possibly, Myanmar and Thailand were not invited as full-fledged transition to democracy has not taken place in the former and the latter is presently facing a political turmoil. In fact, BIMSTEC was designed as a bridge between India along with some South Asian countries and South-East Asia, particularly the ASEAN block.

In the present geopolitics, Modi signalled that India would work for ensuring South Asia work as a unified bloc keeping aside their differences. After much dilly dallying, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally made his presence in the oath-taking ceremony. As a goodwill gesture, on the day before his visit, he ordered release of 151 Indian fishermen languishing in Pakistani jails. However, according to Indian activists, at present around 229 Indian fishermen and about 803 Indian boats are in custody of Pakistan.

Towards the end of Manmohan Singh’s dispensation, the relationship between the two countries soured leading to the breakdown in the dialogue process with incidences like beheading of a Indian soldier Lance Naik at the border, custodial death of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistan jail and consequent retaliation by India and Pakistan being slow in booking culprits of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and stopping export of terror as demanded by India. As a result, Singh refused to visit Pakistan.

But Modi appealed to his Pakistani counterpart to begin the relationship afresh, picking up from the threads of Lahore Declaration of 1999. According to the Pakistan PM’s Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, all contentious issues were discussed with Modi including Kashmir. But Sharif did not meet separatist Hurriyat representatives, which is the usual practice with visiting Pakistani leaders. He met the actress Shabana Azmi at a tea party hosted by a steel tycoon. In his pre-departure statement, he made no reference to Kashmir.

Modi, however, did some tough talking. Underlying the concerns relating to terrorism, he conveyed that Pakistan must abide by its commitment to prevent its territory being used for terrorism against India and speedy trials to book culprits of 26/11 terror attack. Modi also assured his Pakistani counterpart about resolving the Kashmir issue and speedy trials to book culprits of Samjhauta Express blast. It was agreed that foreign secretaries of both the countries would meet to take the process forward, including full normalisation of trade between the two countries on the basis of September 2012 roadmap.

It is interesting to note that ignoring the voices of terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made up their mind to attend Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. Just before Karzai’s visit, the terrorists attacked Indian consulate. PM Modi thanked President Karzai for the excellent work done by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and assured Karzai to work together for the development of Afghanistan.

Development in Sri Lanka is another area of India’s concern. Modi in his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged to meet the aspirations of the Tamil population for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in Sri Lanka and early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and even going beyond that. Sri Lanka released five Indian fishermen held in its custody. The two leaders also discussed the fishermen issue. PM Modi expressed interest in early launch of the 500 MW Sampur Coal Project and urged for greater connectivity between the two countries.

Bhutanese PM Tshering Tobgay agreed to commence four new joint venture hydroelectric projects in Bhutan with Indian cooperation for generating 2120 MW power with buy back facilities.

President Abdullah Yameen of Maldives agreed to promote investment cooperation with India in projects that would strengthen regional and sub-regional transport and connectivity to mutual advantage. Modi expressed support for cooperation in oil exploration, tourism and education.

Prime Minister Modi urged the Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to expedite implementation of hydropower projects and transmission lines and further strengthen connectivity with India, particularly through rail and road. Prime Minister Modi will be visiting Nepal in November, this year for the 18th SAARC Summit.

As Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could not attend Modi’s oath-taking ceremony, she sent the Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhary. Prime Minister Modi assured Dr Chaudhary that India would consider sharing of Teesta waters and implementation of the land boundary agreement.

The presence of Prime Minister Dr Navinchandra Ramgoolan of Mauritius, a member country of Indian Ocean Rim Association was significant. Mauritius is considered as the haven for tax evaders. Dr Ramgoolan agreed to exchange all tax related information with India and strengthen cooperation in maritime security, renewable energy and blue economy.

Modi has signalled that India would like to cooperate with all South Asian nations and countries in the Indian Ocean region and then leap to the extended neighbourhood in South-East Asia, East Asia, and Central Asian Republics for building a pan-Asian identity. Further there are proposals to strengthen South-South cooperation by roping in countries in Africa and Latin America. Onus now lies on the new Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to do the hard work.

(The writer is a senior journalist on strategic and policy issues and former Agriculture Editor of Financial Express. He can be reached at , Mobile Phone no 09810902204)

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