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#4464, 21 May 2014

A Neighbourhood Strategy for Modi

Region by Sub-regions
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS

Multiple foreign policy inputs have already started pouring in terms of options available or likely strategies that the new Prime Minister could/should pursue. Narendra Modi would have his own foreign policy priorities already in terms of what needs to be done.

One important foreign policy area he has to address and make substantial intervention would be in terms of a strong and positive investment in our region – South Asia. In particular, the new government should invest in India’s own sub-regions in North, Northeast, West and South to act as a bridge in reaching out to the neighbourhood. The focus of this commentary is limited to the above two points on the need for New Delhi to prioritize and invest in the region, and use its own sub-regions as a positive tool and leverage.

A comparison could be made with the previous government to avoid the mistakes and blunders. Manmohan Singh, though professed about the need to invest in the region, he did consider US, China, European Union and East Asia as big ticket items; if there were any substantial investments in the region in terms of political and economic during the previous government, it was primarily limited to Afghanistan and Myanmar.
For India, it is imperative that it invests in the region, so as to grow at a particular economic growth rate and more importantly, to maintain social and political stability at the national level, and in particular, in its own sub-regions bordering the neighbouring countries. It is in India’s long term security interests – social, economic and political, that the new government makes adequate political capital in all its neighbouring countries.

During the last decade, there was a perception and a policy attempt to bye-pass the region, if they are not willing to go along with New Delhi. Such a strategy involved, for example bye-passing Bangladesh in the east and Pakistan in the West, and use Myanmar and Afghanistan respectively as a springboard to reach out to Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Despite substantial economic and political investment, such a strategy did not yield reciprocal dividend. The inherent ability of the neighbours, and the nuisance value of certain actors in the neighbourhood is high; they could pull India’s development down – economically and socially.

It is imperative for the new Prime Minister to invest substantially in the region. But this is easier said than done. He would face three critical challenges in operationalizing any approach towards the region. First and foremost, the likely response from the region would play a substantial role in his pursuit of a regional policy. The governments and the leading political actors, along with important pillars of the State such as the military and intelligence in India’s neighbourhood are not that euphoric about Modi’s victory. They are apprehensive and not sure of the new Prime Minister and his likely approach. His past record, especially the ghosts of Godhra still haunts the neighbours in shaping their perceptions towards Modi. Nor does the party he belong to and represent is well perceived in the region.

Besides their own perceptions, the leading political actors and other institutions in the neighbourhood also have to worry about their own internal political equations with the rightist forces within their own country in terms of shaping a positive approach towards Modi. Even if they want to and decide to, the political actors will always have to look behind their back in walking along with Modi. Such is the internal situation and equations within in most of the countries in the neighbourhood. From radical non-State groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba to military and intelligence institutions such as the ISI, can easily provoke India with less investment but maximum damage, as it happened with the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008.

Second major challenge for Modi in terms of making substantial investments in the neighbourhood would come from within – his own government and his own party. The equation between the Prime Minister’s Office and those crucial departments of Home, External Affairs, Defence and Finance would play an important role, as it did during the previous government. It was unfortunate, that Manmohan Singh, though started courageously in his first term, became too weak during the second term, not only in terms of his relationship within the party, but also in terms of keeping the Prime Minister’s Office powerful and the engine of government’s approach towards the region. He allowed especially the Home ministry to take over the foreign policy decisions in terms of India’s neighbourhood.

The Home and Interior Ministries all over the world will always remain apprehensive and cautious, for it is their job to do so. It is equally the job of the PMO to take calculated risks and ensure that the foreign policy is pursued through the Ministry of External Affairs. Besides the above ministries, the PMO also has the advice and experts opinion from the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and the National Security Advisor (NSA). He will have to carry them along, and do not get bogged down by them.

Besides the institutions, the party that Narendra Modi belong to, and its affiliates have a strong ideological orientation, that would play an important role in allowing the space for Narendra Modi. On certain crucial issues and countries, especially Bangladesh and Pakistan, the Parivar has a stated position, which need not necessarily provide the right impetus for Modi towards a strong investment in the region.

On the above question, much would depend on how strong a political leader that Narendra Modi is and would like to remain. Going by how he handled that elections campaign and internal equations with senior leaders of the BJP, one gets an impression, that he would remain a strong leader and be willing to calculated risks. As he did during the election campaign.

The final set of challenges for a strong regional investment for Modi would come from India’s sub-regions, especially the Northeast, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and J&K. It is extremely important that Modi makes substantial investments in these regions within India as well and make them as a bridge between the rest of India and its neighbourhood. While the BJP has polled strongly in the heartland, in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kashmir Valley – three crucial sub-regions that share the border with the neighbourhood, its performance is far from satisfactory.

The AIDMK in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal are the third and fourth largest political parties (with 37 and 34 seats respectively) at the national levels in terms of their representation in the Parliament following the BJP and Congress. In Kashmir Valley, the PDP has bagged all the seats, and in Northeast the results for the National Assembly is mixed. ADMK, Trinamool and PDP – and their leadership will remain strong, as they have been in the past vis-a-vis New Delhi.

While the challenges are substantial, so are the opportunities. Unlike the others, he can start afresh and does not have any baggage of the past vis-a-vis working with these sub-regions and also the region per se. He has an opportunity that Vajpayee had – to start afresh. He also has a good image, as an administrator and a strong leader. More importantly, unlike the yester years, every country starting from the US is keen to do business with him. Global investors are also looking forward to a new financial reforms package from the new Prime Minister.

While the challenges are decisive, the opportunities in front of the new Prime Minister are also sizeable. Let us wish him well. And hope he would deliver.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

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