Modi’s tryst with South Asia
Manmohan Singh began his tenure as prime minister honeymooning with seven-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 4 March 2014. He attended the first BIMESTEC Summit in Bangkok in Thailand on 31 July 2004 after taking over as country’s prime minister on 22 May that year. He presided over the second BIMSTEC Summit on 13 November 2008.
Singh’s immediate successor, Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi chose to begin his debut in foreign policy in a different way. On the very day of taking oath as the country’s 15th prime minister on 26 May, leaders of the eight-nation SAARC body and Mauritius 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.
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 an 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.
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 alongwith 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 as a unified bloc keeping aside mutual differences. After much dilly-dallying, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally made his presence at 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 Sarvjit 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 basis of September 2012 roadmap.
It is interesting 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 in Herat and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Indo-Tibetan Border Forces position at the consulate could repulse the attack. Prime Minister Modi thanked President Karzai for the excellent work done by ANSF and assured to work together for the development of Afghanistan.
Development in Sri Lanka is another area for Indian concern. Modi in his meeting with Lankan 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. Before that, President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka had released five Indian fishermen held in its custody. The two leaders also discussed the fishermen issue. Prime Minister Modi expressed interest in early launch of the 500 MW Sampur Coal Project and urged for greater connectivity between the two countries.
Bhutanese Prime Minister 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 Shirin Sharmin Chaudhary. Prime Minister Modi assured Chaudhary that India would consider sharing of Teesta waters and implementation of the land boundary agreement.
The presence of Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolan of Mauritius, a member country of Indian Ocean Rim Association was significant. Mauritius is considered as the haven for tax evaders. Modi, who has began his foreign diplomacy with South Asian nations and Indian Ocean Rim Association on his very first day, intends to extend it to immediate neighbourhood like ASEAN, Central Asian Republics, Africa and further to Latin America, making India the pivot of diplomatic activities.