New neighbourhood policy in the offing?
THE spectacular victory of Narendra Modi, who was projected as the prime ministerial candidate, got the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power with a simple majority, the first such victory for any party in the last thirty years. His election campaign and the issues that he raised during the course of electioneering created some discomfort and uncertainty in the minds of India's neighbours, who watched the Indian election with as much anticipation as the Indians. The most important question in their minds was what a BJP government with Narendra Modi at the helm will mean for them and the region.
The BJP manifesto says: “We will engage proactively on our own with countries in our neighbourhood and beyond. In our neighbourhood we would pursue friendly relations. However, where required we will not hesitate from taking a strong stand and steps.” Pursuing regional cooperation and connectivity also found mention in BJP's foreign policy agenda. The invitation to the Saarc heads of states to attend Modi's inauguration suggests his proactive policy in engaging the neighbours. This will provide him a chance to know them before he makes any policy pronouncement on the neighbourhood. Moreover, this will provide him a chance to break the ice and create trust, which is an important first step in building good relations.
While his government is ready to extend a hand of friendship, BJP will take firm stand and steps on the issues that directly impinge on India's national security. The BJP manifesto promised zero tolerance to cross-border terrorism, and also that it would take steps on illegal migration. These two issues will directly impinge on India's relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh.
BJP's stance on cross-border terrorism is not new. In 2001, it mobilised troops on the border as a reaction to the attack on Indian Parliament by Pakistan-based terrorist groups. It also received an assurance from the then President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, also an architect of Kargil, that he would not allow his country's territory to be used against India -- an assurance he delivered to a large extent when he was in power. Mumbai attack will remain a major stumbling block for the two countries. However, it was during Vajpayeee's tenure as the prime minister that significant improvement in bilateral relations took place; it is therefore likely that there will not be any fundamental change. Modi will be cautious about starting the relationship with fanfare, as it happened with the bus journey of Vajpayee in the past.
Cross-border terrorism will remain central, however, if Pakistan wishes, there is a possibility of expansion of trade. Trade relation has to overcome a major hurdle, as Pakistan is yet to extend Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) to India, which has reportedly been withheld due to the reservation of the army. Reported difference between the Pakistan army and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over a host of issues would constrain Sharif's government to pursue a policy of friendship with India in spite of all the right noises he made after his election.
Bangladesh will remain a significant partner of India. In fact, BJP at one time had agreed to support the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) that is pending before the Parliament. Though the local BJP unit in Assam is opposed to the signing of the LBA, BJP may sign it. Rajnath Singh, after taking over as the party president last year, had said it would be 'in the national interest' of the country. The Awami League leadership has been in touch with the BJP, including Narendra Modi, on this issue. On her last visit to India, Khaleda Zia also had met BJP's top political functionaries. The issue of illegal migration will remain a tricky issue. Both the countries, given the political compulsion, are tackling this under the issue of human trafficking. New modalities need to be found out to deal with this problem. Teesta water sharing treaty is another major issue. Only important factor this time is that the BJP is not dependent on the Trinamool Congress (TMC), therefore it doesn't have the compulsion of pandering to the demand of TMC. However, since BJP has made inroads in Assam and West Bengal, it may be difficult for the party to give concession on Teesta or give up its rhetoric on illegal immigration, as it would like to consolidate its position in these two states.
Invitation to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has already created a furor in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has described this invitation as “rubbing salt on the wounds of the Tamils.” It is unlikely that there will be a major shift in India's stance on the Tamil issue, contrary to the expectation of the Sri Lankan president. However, there will be little sympathy for the position of MDMK and PMK, the parties that sympathise with LTTE and are allies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Thirteenth Amendment and devolution of power would continue to remain significant determiners of India's Sri Lanka policy.
It is likely that the Modi government may be more sympathetic to Afghan security need. It is determined to help stabilise the legitimately elected government of Afghanistan. While deepening security cooperation, the government is likely to step up development cooperation with Afghanistan.
BJP government will continue to be supportive of political transition in Nepal. However, given Nepal's conservative forces, like the pro-monarchical political groups and their link with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS, restoration of monarchy and declaring Nepal as Hindu state will figure prominently in the political agenda. It is unlikely that the NDA government will support this or engage in any policy reversal. With Bhutan and Maldives, there will be no significant policy change. India is supportive of democratic transition in both these countries.
India's overall policy towards its neighbours will not see any significant shift. Security and economic integration, regional trade and connective will remain key issues for the NDA government. Multilateralism and regional cooperation are likely to be reinvigorated and will emerge as a key feature in India's engagement in South Asia. In this context, Modi's invitation to Saarc leaders is truly innovative and signals a new approach towards the governments in the neighbourhood that they remain significant partners of India in the region. Sometimes symbolism becomes substantive and this invitation attests that India's South Asian neigbours are important and matter to India. This is a message that needs to go out repeatedly from India.
The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.