Diplomatic Enclave: A bright beginning

Tags: Knowledge

Narendra Modi was well-versed in his dealings with all the seven Saarc leaders

The gathering of South Asian leaders in Delhi for the oath-taking ceremony of the Narendra Modi government was a success. The invitation to the seven Saarc leaders and Mauritius prime minister Navin Ramgoolam sent out a goodwill message, signalling the new government’s foreign policy priorities in the neighbourhood.

It allowed the visiting leaders to get a glimpse of the Modi worldview and served to refurbish his image. It also helped remove any misgivings about the Modi government adopting a narrow nationalist approach towards the neighbours, going by the election time rhetoric of BJP leaders.

It was a good beginning for the new government. Pakistan and Sri Lanka announced the release of Indian prisoners as their leaders flew to Delhi.

Each of the visiting leaders had separate meetings with Modi that were described as courtesy calls, but the discussions showed that Modi was well versed on substantive issues with each one of them. He spoke of cooperation within the South Asian region — a theme that figures prominently in the foreign policy section of the BJP’s election manifesto.

The new prime minister talked of joint development of four new hydropower projects with Bhutan’s prime minister Tshering Tobgay, and had a discussion on cooperation in oil and gas exploration with the Maldives president Abdulla Yameen.

The contentious issues too were touched upon; from the issue of terrorism with Pakistan, to the Teesta waters and land boundary agreement with Bangladesh and the implementation of the 13th Amendment meant to devolve powers to Tamil-dominated Northeast provincial council in Sri Lanka. The security interests of India and the Maldives were emphasised as closely interlinked while the leaders agreed to continue to be sensitive to each other’s security concerns and not allow their territory to be used for any activity inimical to the other.

The main attention was naturally focused on the meeting with Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who overcame objections of the hardliners and militants back home as well as the disinclination of the Pakistani army to accept the Indian invitation.

Modi spoke of the loud bangs of terrorism drowning out the sounds of dialogue using an evocative colloquial Hindi phrase that loses its punch in translation. But he also said India-Pakistan trade could be fully normalised under the September 2012 roadmap. The Pakistani leader returned home with the assurance that the two foreign secretaries would be in touch to take forward the process towards a dialogue.

Amongst all the bilateral issues that came up for discussion, Modi shared with the other leaders his vision for the Saarc region. Modi’s emphasis was on regional connectivity and cooperation in South Asia; it was a part of his agenda for development and growth. Regional integration would give a boost to the economies of South Asian region.

He proposed each country learn from the best practices of other Saarc members, citing as an example Bangladesh’s pioneering experience with micro finance, which others could easily emulate.

Modi stressed that contentious bilateral issues should be kept out of Saarc as it is a regional organisation. India has long held the position that bilateral issues have no place in Saarc but they have nonetheless, continued to dog the regional body’s process. Saarc has remained a sluggish organisation due to lingering suspicions that have vitiated the atmosphere, preventing the growth of regional cooperation.

Can these series of meetings rejuvenate the Saarc process? Can the good will generated by the Modi government’s initiative be taken forward and converted into positive advances in regional cooperation? The Indian prime minister’s discussions with the Saarc leaders set the tone for improving relations with each country right at the start of his term. It brought the focus on India, the largest economy in the region.

Most Saarc countries have new governments. Elections have been held in Pakistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan in the last one year while Afghanistan is in the midst of its presidential election. The Sri Lankan elections are due next year. A new government usually has the opportunity and the time to impart new energy in its ties with other countries.

Building Saarc into an energetic regional organisation will benefit all its member countries and would be to India’s advantage. For almost three decades, this South Asian body has languished with intra-Saarc trade pegged at a mere 5 per cent.

India-Bangladesh trade has tripled in the past three years while Sri Lanka saw a huge jump in trade with India after signing a trade agreement. More trade, tourism, energy cooperation, border connectivity would be beneficial to all the countries.

The meeting with South Asian leaders is a beginning; it has set the ground for improving ties with each of them. But South Asia has seen several such new beginnings. Saarc will need strong political will among its leaders that would provide the regional body the impetus it needs to grow into a dynamic

organisation.

(The writer is a

columnist and foreign

affairs specialist)

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