Millennium Post

Change of prism

Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to look at the world from a different prism than his predecessors in the office. The indications given out by Plan Modi became evident when, after becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, he chose the neighbouring state of Bhutan as his first port of call, which begins today. Even though the objective behind PM’s visit to Bhutan, followed by a diplomatic trip to Japan, is still latent, nevertheless, the PM’s agenda of infrastructural development and economic prosperity is crystal clear. Modi is scheduled to visit Bhutan on 15 June, followed by Japan in July, then Brazil and United States of America in September. The prime minister could travel to Brazil to participate in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in mid July.

The manner in which Modi has started working on the foreign affairs, a clear message has been sent out. Strengthening relations with neighbouring countries tops his agenda of development, now it is obvious. It’s a fact that India is a leading country among South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations. India, naturally, has to play the role of family elder and take care of the interests of other supporting nations. Given that India occupies 70 per cent of the SAARC region, both geographically and economically, and the remaining six nations of the SAARC border only with India and not with each other, the role will be crucial and keenly watched. As the biggest, and the most industrialised trading partner among the SAARC countries, India has to recognise that a special responsibility revolves on her ability to take a lead in making the Regional Economic Cooperation a reality in South Asia. The SAARC, not to forget, is an economic and geopolitical cooperation bloc comprising eight member nations of South Asia which form part of Indian peninsula. Its secretariat is headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal. The members of SAARC are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Modi is visiting the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan first as the country has been among India’s friendliest neighbours and enjoys a close inter-dependent relationship. The country’s economy is closely linked with India and despite pressure from powerful countries, Thimphu has been conscious in not taking any decision inimical to Indian interest. China, for instance, has been trying hard to open a mission in Bhutan.

Welcoming the PM’s move to visit Bhutan first, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor Pushpesh Pant said, ‘It’s a very well planned move of prime minister Narendra Modi. Visiting Bhutan is strategically very significant for India as Bhutan has always supported India at every front.’ The retired professor of International Relations said, ‘Bhutan is a loyal and time-tested partner as it never allowed China to use its land for any anti-Indian activities, while Nepal gave patronage to Chinese forces to conspire against India on several occasions.’

However, Vidhan Pathak,  professor at Bombay University, said that it would be too early to predict the agenda and outcome of Modi’s foreign trips to diplomatically sensitive nations in the global perspective. The academic heavyweight is very optimistic about the Modi’s visit and said, ‘Only after some months will we get a clear idea on PM’s visit to these countries.’ Pathak said, ‘The visit to Bhutan is strategically important, but I’ll give more importance to Modi’s tour to Japan and USA as the role of these two countries is very crucial to the economic growth of India.’

He further said that it was difficult as of now to predict Modi’s stand vis-a-vis Pakistan despite the recent bonhomie of his Pak counterpart Nawaz Sharif attending the swearing-in ceremony.
The bilateral relations between the Bhutan and India have been traditionally close. Indian influence over Bhutan’s foreign policy, defence and commerce is for all to see. As of 2012-13 fiscal, India’s budgetary support to the Kingdom country stands at $600 million, about one-third of India’s overall annual foreign aid. Bhutan’s new prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, secured an aid package from India worth Rs 54 billion ($ 819 million, as per the exchange rates at the time of signing the deal) for his nation during his visit to New Delhi in August 2013. Five-sixth of this amount (Rs 45 billion) has been earmarked for Bhutan’s 11th Five-Year plan, Rs 4 billion was kept for the pending projects of the previous plan period. The remaining Rs 5 billion was part of India’s ‘economic stimulus package’ for Bhutan’s slowing economy.

BJP leader and convener of party’s Overseas Cell, Vijay Jolly, sees PM’s foreign trip as a part of his international outlook. Jolly said, ‘Prime minister Narendra Modi has a global vision and that approach gives an interesting insight into his mindset. By involving and inviting the SAARC regional leaders, Modi has devised  a smart ploy to put aside differences over regional, linguistic and religious issues. The move was doubtless a message of peace and intention to work together for the betterment of the people of the neighbouring countries by maintaining close ties with them.’

Jolly said Modi’s starting off his global voyage with the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan as the first stop speaks loudly of the BJP government’s plan to engage with its immediate neighbour on the plank of development, peace, security and mutual understandings. Jolly said, ‘The second visit coming close on the heels of the PM’s calling on Bhutan is the one to Japan. Shinzo Abe-led country has substantially invested in India’s economic development and infrastructural projects such as Metro Rail in Delhi and other parts of the country, contributing to Delhi-Gujarat corridor, investing in highways and other infrastructural projects in the western state.’

On the issue of Chinese incursions, Jolly said, ‘India doesn’t have any actual threat from the neighbouring or far-flung countries. We don’t consider China to be a threat. Rather, we consider China as a challenge. So from that view point, India’s core relation with its neighbours is not dependent upon its policies vis-à-vis China: it’s dependent on its own policies.’ On the visit to US, he said, ‘It’s a relatively welcome sign that US has engaged itself with Modi and his government. We welcome the move of US extending the hand of peace and development.’ During the visit to Japan, Modi is expected to hold talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe on key bilateral and regional issues in the backdrop of China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.

India and the US are working on dates for a bilateral ‘summit-level meeting’ with US President Barack Obama in Washington –coinciding with Modi’s visit to the US for the UN General Assembly session in September this year. The visit is expected to break the ice between Modi and the US, which denied the former a visa in 2005 for allegedly turning a blind eye to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, when he was the chief minister. It was only on 16 May – the day on which India’s general election results were announced – that the US announced it would give Modi a visa to travel to the US.

Why Bhutan?

Modi zeroed in on Bhutan for this unique and unprecedented honour (no previous Indian PM has made Bhutan the destination of his or her first foreign trip) for a variety of reasons.

Bhutan had conducted Operation All Clear in December 2003 against India-specific insurgents and thrown them out in this military operation – something that no neighbour has ever done for India.
Apart from Bhutan being a zero-problem model neighbour, Thimphu also offers a zero-problem destination for the Indian PM’s maiden foreign visit. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – two other SAARC neighbours which were discussed in the PMO and the MEA as possible destinations of Modi’s first foreign trip – would have stirred some domestic hornet’s nests.

Modi’s visit to Bangladesh at this time would be meaningless till the two sides make a forward movement on the two pending bilateral issues – Land Boundary Agreement and Teesta water accord – both of which are being stiffly opposed by the state government of West Bengal.

Modi had other choices too from a list of major powers like Russia, Japan and China for his maiden foreign trip. The first on this list – Russia – eliminated itself by its hitherto unexplained move of lifting its embargo on selling weapons and defence equipment to Pakistan. Japan and China could have been possible destinations. But then given the deep distrust and bitter rivalry between the two, choosing either of them for Modi’s first foreign trip would have seriously upset the other.

Modi choosing Bhutan as the first destination of his foreign trip would go a long way in reassuring the Bhutanese on India, particularly after the UPA government’s faux pas of cancelling fuel subsidies to Bhutan last year, only to revoke the cancellation shortly thereafter.

Courting Japan 

Apart from stable diplomatic front, the economic cooperation between India and Japan has been buoyant. Traditionally, Japan has been the second largest destination of Indian exports (including gems, marine products, iron ore, and cotton yarn, chiefly). India is also a major importer of goods from Japan, and its importance has been growing in recent years (major imports include machinery, plant-related products, transport equipment, and electronic machinery). Indian investors find Japan quite alluring in terms of investments. Japan, the business hub of Asia’s growing economies, is rated as world’s second largest market. 

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