The Bharatiya Janata Party achieved that which has never happened in the last three decades in the Indian polity – the formation of a government through a full majority. The Modi-wave was larger than what many in the country dared to believe, with one media house calling the phenomenon a TsuNaMo. Following the election, NaMo has donned the costume of the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman.
The Prime Minister’s first foreign trip since entering office was to Bhutan, where he made a commitment to continue the cooperation in development, and extend the economic ties of both the countries. NaMo reiterated India’s commitment to hydro-power projects in the happiest Himalayan nation, announced a strengthening of trade relations in essential commodities such as wheat, oil, pulses and rice, promised cooperation in developing key Bhutanese infrastructure including the construction of their Supreme Court, providing a digital library and doubling scholarships to Bhutanese students in India, and mooting an annual hill sports festival among the north-eastern states of India, Bhutan and Nepal. It was almost simultaneously that the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, visited Bangladesh, where she promised that her government would build upon the momentum of existing relationships between the two countries. The Prime Minister plans to visit Nepal early in August, following an invitation by his Nepalese counterpart, Sushila Koirala earlier in June. No Prime Minister has visited Nepal in an official capacity for the last seventeen years, despite an open invitation to NaMo’s predecessor. The relation between the two countries has always been rocky, with Nepal being disapproving of India’s bade miya attitude. Sushma Swaraj plans to accompany NaMo on his visit to Kathmandu, in order to discuss the strengthening of bilateral relations between the countries.
The new “Spiderman” avatar of NaMo works to the benefit of both India and her neighbours in the north-east. Being a man of development, NaMo brings a lot of hope for Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. In India itself, the BJP has always had a positive outlook on the north-eastern states. NaMo promised to an overall progress of the region during his campaign, focussing on developing effective water management systems, and harnessing the solar and wind energy potential in the region. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s emphasis on the north-east during his tenure was a call that was taken up afresh by NaMo during his campaign days. He recognised the historical and political disadvantage of the region, and the disrespect that the north-eastern identity suffers in the rest of the country. For example, he called for an increased export of tea from Assam, decried the power and water crises in the state, and called for the development of tourism in Arunachal Pradesh. “The main focus should be on developing the resources and infrastructure in the states of the north-east,” NaMo was quoted as saying.
The foreign visits to the north-eastern neighbours must be seen as a complementary step to his election promises in the north-east. Strengthening relations with the north-eastern neighbours will go a long way in ensuring a peaceful atmosphere, and building a common pool of resources to improve each other’s economy and security.The foreign visits must be seen as a measure towards the securing of the north-eastern borders.The Burmese government has lost control over the militant elements in their country, a lot of which are funded through smuggling drugs, illicit human trafficking and arms into India through the Manipuri corridor. Accumulation of contraband within the north-eastern territories only serves to deteriorate the poor conditions already existing there, and increasing the risk of militancy within the states. Better relationships with Bangladesh, and Bhutan could mean a safer border around West Bengal, Assam, and the hard north-east. NaMo realises that merely blaming the Congress for the recent violence in Assam is insufficient, and friendly relations with Bangladesh can be a huge step towards preventing insurgency in Assam, and also to weed out terrorist hubs. Any potential Buddhist-Islamist conflict in the region could spell trouble for New Delhi.
China has had an eye on Indian territories for a long period of time, and exerts a significant influence over Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east. China has been consistently strengthening its ties with Nepal and Bhutan, in an effort to reduce India’s own (deteriorating) influence. India cannot be happy to see countries outside the region having influence over her key neighbours, and Bhutan and Nepal count heavily in India’s strategic calculation. India’s cooperation and bilateral relations with these countries has the potential to consequently offset the Chinese influence in India as well. In 2012, reportedly Bhutan agreed to exchange certain northern territories comprising 500 square kilometerss with roughly 300 square kilometers of territory in the west, when Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley met Premier Wen Jiabao in Rio de Janeiro. This would have been detrimental to India’s defensive strategies in the chicken-neck area of the north-east.
The Chumbi Valley in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is another strategic location, given its proximity to the Siliguri corridor in India, which can only remain secure through good relations with Nepal and Bhutan. NaMo has clearly realised that this is India’s region of influence, and her security and prosperity lies here. With this respect, during NaMo’s visit, India and Bhutan reiterated that their territories would not be used in the interest of the countries inimical to each other.
The plans for a greater engagement in the neighbourhood beyond the bonhomie of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation will indeed be a step towards securing the safety and governance of the north-east. A relationship with the more stable neighbours in the north-east over vague “friendships” with Pakistan and the United States of America towards the west is a more practical, win-win aspect for India.