India must consider OBOR again
The One Belt One Road (OBOR) mega project, now renamed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is arguably the greatest trade connectivity and infrastructure project in human history. It aims to connect all of Eurasia and also Africa in a well-knit zone where trade, industry, and commerce will not be bogged down by infrastructural and political bottlenecks. The main force behind this initiative is the People's Republic of China, but it is much more than a Chinese project – it is veritably the network on which future economic development of much of Eurasia will lie. Isolating from this network is to be at a huge competitive disadvantage.
OBOR in many ways is the principal economic axis of Europe and Asia, on land and the seas. The recent meeting about the OBOR in China attracted many heads of state from all corners of the world, from Russia to Chile to Sri Lanka. If one looks at the map of Asia and colour the countries that have decided to join the One Belt One Road project, it will be clear that much of Asia will get coloured. In that grand Eurasian economic union, one landmass will look very isolated. That is the Indian Union. Staying out of One Belt One Road is set to have grievous consequences for the Indian's economy in the future. More importantly, staying out will sabotage the great geo-economic potential that eastern territories of the Indian Union have.
West Bengal and the Northeastern states of the Indian Union will become major economic beneficiaries in terms of revenue, infrastructure, and much more if the Indian Union joins One Belt One Road. But the Indian government decided to stay out the recent meeting and was virtually isolated on the international stage.
Even the USA joined the meeting as did Vietnam which has many border disputes with China. Vietnam did so because it is sane enough to prioritise its real world economic develop in comparison to territorial claims which have no effect on the daily lives of its citizens in any practical, objective sense. New Delhi cited a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a major axis of the One Belt One Road project, as the reason why it decided to boycott. It is true that a stretch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through areas that have been held by China and Pakistan for a very long time but are claimed by the Indian Union. In practical terms, for the last 70 years or so, the Indian government has never had any functional jurisdiction over the area except the ridiculous charade of having empty seats in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly that correspond to those regions that are not under Indian Union Administration.
In terms of extending its administration to these regions, the Indian government's activities have been limited to anti-Pakistan PR that very few listen to (very few countries unequivocally share the Indian government's position on the Kashmir issue) and going after the random map which might have drawn the area according to ground realities and not according to New Delhi's fantasies. Neither does New Delhi have any practical roadmap to acquire these territories from Pakistan and China. Vietnam has maintained its territorial claims while it has joined One Belt One Road. The Indian Union could have done the same, but it did not. So to cite this completely impractical position as the reason to boycott One Belt One Road is ultimately self-defeating.
But then the question arises, what is this 'self' when I said self-defeating? It is an important issue because the long and continued presence all the Beijing administered but New Delhi claimed territories never stopped then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from going to China to seek investments. Neither has that stopped the outsourcing to China the manufacturing of the giant Vallabhbhai Patel figure, the so-called "Statue of Unity" (comically, "unity" here means the Indian Union's territorial unity). Nor will that stop the $1 billion China Industrial Park in Gujarat. The long and continued presence all the Islamabad administered, but India claimed territories had not stopped New Delhi from bestowing the "most favoured nation" (MFN) status to Pakistan. Why then, when the question of the development of West Bengal and Indian Union's northeastern territories are involved that all these issues are raised? If the Indian government has the money to bankroll the infrastructure and connectivity development in these states, why doesn't it? The truth is quite the opposite. If anything West Bengal is fiscally looted by New Delhi, and this has been the reality since 1947 with particular egregious things like the Freight Equalisation policy that were designed to destroy any economic and industrial advantage that the East, primarily West Bengal, but also Jharkhand and Odisha, had.
If New Delhi takes such a hypocritical attitude vis-à-vis Chinese engagement, then it is unfortunate. New Delhi can order that all trade with China will stop. But it won't because it can't.
China's manufacturing strength and market hold is so deep compared to the Indian Union that there is no comparison. It is only in Delhi's sycophant and PR like media that something like Sino-Indian rivalry and comparison exists. To rest of the world, there is no comparison, which is why when New Delhi boycotted the meeting, hardly anyone cared, except for Bhutan. But wait, New Delhi controls Bhutan's foreign policy. Every other nation in South Asia deserted New Delhi and joined the OBOR – Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka. This also shows that the Indian Union is not only isolated internationally on this question but isolated even in its immediate neighbourhood. It is a sad testament to the performance and judgement of policy wonks and diplomats in the national capital, but most importantly, it shows how the high-octane foreign connect of Indian Union's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is for domestic jingoistic consumption.
New Delhi must do a rethink on OBOR. Coining other alphabet soups in the name of some African Economic Corridor or some US-Japan sponsored Indian Ocean-centric mini project is no match to OBOR. No one will be fooled by these, just like everyone understands that BIMSTEC, BCIM or BBIN type of regional connectivity plans have only earned frequent flyer miles for policy makers on junkets. They have not yielded much else. Even Bhutan has refused to be part of BBIN's crucial motor vehicle agreement. If the Indian Union has to prosper, it's states must prosper. New Delhi is holding back the real world economic development of the Eastern and Northeastern states to satisfy some position on the sovereignty issues of territories where the Indian flag has never flown ever in history. With a Gujarati at the helm in Delhi, one would have thought that the Indian Union would have worked out a good bargain. But that has not happened. Indian Union's eastern states might have lost the biggest economic rejuvenation possibility in a generation while Gujarat's wooing of China goes on. These double standards are by now shamefully stark.
(The views are strictly personal.)