Written by Sreeradha Datta.
For India, making regionalism work in its own backyard is increasingly becoming a necessary imperative. Arguably, bilateral ties form the most important corner stone for any nation states diplomacy and India is no different. However, in contemporary international relations processes, multilateralism and regionalisms have also been pursued for greater development, growth and integration amongst the comity of nations.
India’s bilateral journey in the South Asian region has seen limited success. Although recognised as a rising economy it remains unaccepted as a regional power and its sphere of influence remains heavily restricted, with serious and outstanding issues with two of its largest neighbours remaining unresolved. While it is increasingly being courted by extra regional powers, it is yet unable to crack the code with its immediate neighbours.
A functional BIMSTEC organisation will not only be the precursor to establishing trade and connectivity and creating cross border value chains with the member states but will also generate an economic momentum that will vitalise the land and sea route connections to mainland India.
To briefly recall India and its neighbours have shared an uneven relationship for a significant period. None in the immediate neighbourhood could overlook the central position that gave India an advantage over others. India’s overwhelming size and economy often posed a problem especially amongst its smaller neighbours. Despite periodic rhetoric by several governments, India could never fully address the mistrust that most nursed about the largest state in the South Asian region. Since coming to power in May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government sought to deal with these concerns. The ‘neighbours first’ policy was launched grandly with the presence of several neighbourhood leaders during the swearing- in- ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, the political intentions faced a setback through series of developments in the neighbourhood. Pakistan had to be cast aside given its continued terror attacks and the bilateral impasse continues till date. Distance with Sri Lanka grew over its final war against the Tamil militants and while the neighbours are on a business as usual mode the bilateral engagement has been limited. Nepal with whom India actually shares a unique ties reflected through its open border policy the Himalayan neighbour has not forgotten its resentment over the closure of the Indo-Nepal border. Bhutan a close economic partner has a new domestic environment and sensitivities and cannot be taken for granted any longer. The only significant breakthrough India has been able to bring about in the neighbourhood in the last forty two months is vis-à-vis its eastern neighbour Bangladesh. This bilateral partnership spanning a wide cross section of common issues including infrastructural development will complement the initiative to enable regionalism in the subcontinent.
History of regionalism in contemporary South Asia has been unremarkable. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) became ineffective on account of the continued mistrust between India and Pakistan. Unable to move SAARC forward India began exploring other options of sub regionalism. Presently India is pursuing two regional initiatives in its neighbourhood. The subgrouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) will introduce seamless cross-border trade and transportation through signing of the Motor Vehicle Act but could not be implemented as Bhutan expressed reservation over environmental, commercial and security concerns.
This is certainly not the first of the sub-regional attempts in this region. Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM EC) was one such grouping that also fell through over political differences between India and China. There were few more similar attempts but none achieved any significant gains. BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) was one such dormant organisation but is being infused with a fresh lease of life. BIMSTEC comprises five South Asian states Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and two Southeast Asian immediate neighbours in the region Myanmar and Thailand. Although bereft of any significant progress in its first two decades India is keen to make this organisation effective as it is suitably poised to complement Indian national efforts to tap the potential in its northeast region as well as its bilateral efforts to engage with the adjacent neighbourhood.
To recall briefly the ‘Look East’ policy coined in early 1990s had actually led to establishing a substantial terms of engagement with economies of the East and Southeast Asian countries. But India’s political and economic engagement with these vibrant economies bypassed India’s northeast region consisting of eight states (known generically as simply the Northeast) that lies adjacent to them. Interestingly this region is connected to mainland India through a narrow corridor of 11 kms popularly known as ‘chickens neck’ while each Northeast state shares an international border. The Northeast with a distinctly different terrain and ecology from the rest of India is also one of the most underdeveloped region with a history of trouble and strife and an economy that falls way below the national average growth rate.
To address this Modi unveiled a strong developmental plan consisting of building a network of roads and highways, organising investments fairs, encouraging tourism and establishing institutions of higher education, harnessing energy potential but most importantly establishing a connectivity to not only mainland India but also with its immediate neighbours in the East. A functional BIMSTEC organisation will not only be the precursor to establishing trade and connectivity and creating cross border value chains with the member states but will also generate an economic momentum that will vitalise the land and sea route connections to mainland India. Bangladesh and Myanmar two of India’s eastern neighbours in critical in making BIMSTEC operational. The bilateral cross border connectivity and transport corridors India is developing with them will be woven together into a regional transportation and connectivity network complementing many of the other BIMSTEC agendas.
In wake of the Indian federal system, the Northeast state governments have recurrently blamed the Central government for its many woes. With three states governments’ in the BJP kitty and looking to consolidate further in the elections shortly scheduled in three other states accusing the Centre for its lack of support may not be an excuse anymore. Incentives to make regionalism work clearly exist. But India needs to walk an extra mile to make it happen. Will it?
Sreeradha Datta is distinguished Fellow, at Asian Confluence. Formerly director at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute for Asian Studies, she has been specializing in South Asian studies with a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi, India. She is author of several books including Caretaking Democracy: Political Process in Bangladesh, 2006-08,.She tweets at @SreeradhaDatta. Image credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.