Memo to Modi: Focus on India’s Near Abroad

The invitation by Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, bringing other South Asian leaders to his elaborate swearing-in ceremony was a brilliant piece of regional diplomacy.  Breaking with tradition, the event was akin to an American-style inauguration held in the forecourt of the Presidential Palace, a majestic red sandstone edifice that formerly housed the viceroy of the British Raj.  At once, the ceremony showcased the vigor of India’s democratic institutions – the centerpiece of the country’s soft power – as well as its natural primary in subcontinental affairs.  It also dampened concerns that the incoming government would be driven by hyperbolic nationalism.

But Mr. Modi will require creative initiatives and sustained endeavors in order to capitalize on this initial gesture.

He has his work cut out for him in trying to rejuvenate India’s global power prospects.  He’s certainly right that these begin at home, since the country’s standing in the world is closely related to the vitality of the domestic economy.  Next in importance, though, is its grip on its home region.  Simply put, Modi’s desire to put India’s stamp on the 21st century will go nowhere if New Delhi remains unable to purposefully shape events in its immediate neighborhood.

India has the misfortune of residing in a highly volatile precinct, surrounded by weak and unstable, and often hostile, countries that perennially top various failed-states indices.  Pakistan, of course, is the nonpareil example here.  Its existential challenges are so dire that some in Washington view the country as the nuclear version of the Congo.  The official Pakistani inquiry into the U.S. commando assault in Abbottabad pointedly concludes that the country is in the midst of a “governance implosion syndrome” and it revealingly quotes General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the former ISI chief, as acknowledging that “We are a failing state even if we are not yet a failed state.”  Yesterday’s terrorist assault at Karachi’s international airport shows once again how turmoil has spread from the badlands of the tribal areas into the country’s major urban areas (see here and here for depressing analysis).

The highly problematic regional environment, especially the continuous ructions with and within Pakistan, clearly frustrates India’s larger ambitions and diverts the attention of those in New Delhi who prefer to look to the global arena.  Yet India has traditionally devoted little energy and creativity toward tending its relations with its “near abroad.”  Despite the common civilizational and historical links that permeate South Asia, India has been unable to integrate the area in the same way that China has economically stitched together the much more culturally diverse and geographically disperse East Asian region.

The previous government under Manmohan Singh deserves some kudos for actively engaging in economic diplomacy with East Asia, penning trade and commercial deals with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the ten-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  It also deepened security cooperation with Japan and hosted an unprecedented summit meeting in New Delhi with ASEAN leaders.

But the high profile of India’s “Look East” policy is in stark contrast with New Delhi’s lackluster record of leadership in its own back yard.  Its efforts at promoting cross-border economic cooperation via the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – a forum largely created by India – remain feeble, for example.  Indeed, South Asia lags far behind other world regions in terms of economic integration.  The South Asia Free Trade Area has remained a dead letter since its inception in 2006, as intra-regional trade continues to amount to less than two percent of GDP compared to over 20 percent in East Asia.  And even during India’s recent economic boom, its level of imports from its neighbors was dropping significantly.

So, here are a few ideas that Mr. Modi might consider in putting substance behind the bonhomie of the other week while cementing New Delhi’s leadership position in the neighborhood.

Regional Initiatives

South Asian countries have a tradition of using the repatriation of fishermen apprehended in disputed territorial waters as goodwill gestures, but usually only after the crews have languished for months and sometimes years in miserable prisons and detention facilities.  Pakistan, for instance, released some 150 Indian fishermen in advance of Nawaz Sharif’s trip to New Delhi last month, an act that India quickly reciprocated by repatriating 37 Pakistanis.  And earlier this year, Sri Lanka released 116 Indian fishermen in the run-up to negotiations over the Palk Bay conflict, though it saw fit to arrest another 82 a few days ago.

For humanitarian and diplomatic reasons, as well as because the budgetary resources could be better allocated to other national priorities, Modi would do well to enunciate a new policy on the treatment of fishermen arrested for maritime trespassing.  This approach would take a page from the U.S. practice on its border with Mexico: After having their photographs and fingerprints taken, and warned that second-time offenders will face stiff penalties, apprehended fishermen should be quickly returned to their countries.  Foreign fishing crews still serving their sentences would have their terms immediately commuted and then be repatriated.

This gesture, which one hopes would be reciprocated by the other states, would earn New Delhi some much-needed goodwill in the region.  And since many of the Pakistani fishermen in Indian custody are arrested in and around Sir Creek, a disputed 60 mile-long patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh, the new approach might even give impetus to efforts to resolve this impasse.  Former Prime Minister Singh called an agreement on the issue “doable” and many observers believe it is easiest to solve among the territorial contestations bedeviling India-Pakistan relations.

Next, taking a leaf from China’s playbook in East Asia, especially its scheme for an Asian infrastructure investment bank, Mr. Modi should champion the commerce ministry’s proposal for a South Asian development bank.  The specific emphasis of this institution should be on enhancing cross-border economic linkages among the SAARC countries, with the explicit requirement that funding applications will only be considered provided they were drafted on a joint basis by countries.  This stipulation would induce national bureaucracies into the habit of framing economic policies in conjunction with their neighbors.

The bank might be based in Kolkata to symbolize the historical role it played in an earlier era in unifying the South Asian market.  To allay concerns about Indian dominance, as well as the politicization of funding decisions, the bank’s senior employees should have prior professional experience at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund or the Asian Development Bank.

Bilateral Initiatives

Speaking of coaxing suspicious and unimaginative bureaucracies into unnatural acts of cooperation, New Delhi should propose several Pakistan-specific initiatives.  First, building on the unique bilateral accord banning attacks on nuclear installations, India and Pakistan should fashion joint preparations in the event of reactor accidents in either country as well as establish a jointly-run nuclear security and safety training center for the South Asian region.

Second, the Indian government already has a number of scholarship programs enabling foreign nationals to study at Indian universities.  One scheme sets aside 1,000 scholarships exclusively for Afghan nationals; another earmarks 900 awards for African students.  Still other programs benefit scores of Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi nationals.  The Modi government should announce a new program awarding 150 post-graduate scholarships annually to talented Pakistanis seeking to advance their studies at Indian institutions.  These awards might even be named “Vajpayee scholarships” in honor of the former prime minister’s visionary trip to Lahore in early 1999 and the hope it inspired for a new era in bilateral relations.

Turning to Bangladesh, the Modi government should quickly finalize the water-sharing treaty that was supposed to be the highlight of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011, as well as expeditiously implement the land dispute accord that was signed then.  These actions would ameliorate the criticism Modi will receive if he fulfills his campaign pledge to expel millions of illegal Bangladeshi migrants from Indian territory.

(UPDATE, June 12: According to media reports, India will ratify the long-pending land boundary accord with Bangladesh during Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Dhaka later this month, and will also move ahead with the Teesta water-sharing agreement.  The new BJP government also plans to ask Bangladesh for access to a small land corridor to facilitate the movement of people and goods between India’s isolated northeast and the rest of the country.  It’s interesting to note that the BJP, whose parliamentary caucus was then led by Swaraj, was strongly opposed to the land agreement when the Manmohan Singh government, attempted to move it through parliament.)

New Delhi also should make clear that V.K. Singh’s mandate as minister of state for the seven neglected states in India’s northeast region will include initiatives designed to enhance economic connections between the area and Bangladesh.  One idea that deserves close consideration is the proposal for a “Seven Sisters Corridor” linking the northeastern states to contiguous neighbors like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar.  Additionally, focus should be given to restoring the vital economic links that once existed between Kolkata and its rural hinterlands but which were severed to each side’s detriment by the partition of Bengal.  There is an obvious funding role here for the South Asian development bank if it comes into being.  More ideas along these lines can be found here and here.

Prime Minister Modi proclaims that he wants “to make the 21st century India’s century.”  But to accomplish this, he will need to bring the neighbors along for the ride.

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