By Syed Ali Mujtaba
South Asia, the countries surrounding India, forming a regional grouping called SAARC has come to acquire top priority status in the policy framework of the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
An invitation was extended to the SAARC countries leaders for the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi and there was an overwhelming response from the neighboring countries leadership.
Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Nepal Sushil Koirala, President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury were all present at the swearing in ceremony on 26 May 2014. Only Myanmar, the key to India’s look east policy was conspicuous by its absence.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shortly after the swearing-in ceremony had substantive meetings with all the leaders of SAARC countries who visited India at his request. Here is a summary of the meeting.
Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi held talks with the Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif. During the meeting both the leaders underlined mutual concerns relating to terrorism and commitment to fight it. Indian Prime Minister conveyed that Pakistan must abide by its commitment to prevent its territory and territory under its control from being used for terrorism against India. Modi also expected that Pakistan must take necessary steps about the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 and expedite the legal process on 26/11 trial. Both the leaders agreed for the Foreign Secretaries will remain in touch and improve the bi-lateral relations and move immediately towards full trade normalization on the basis of the September 2012 roadmap.
The outcome of the meeting between the two leaders was that Prime Minister Modi will be visiting Pakistan at a later date. Besides, it was agreed to resume Secretary level talks and take forward the Lahore declaration was agreed upon. Lahore Declaration was signed in October 1999 between then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
While, meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Modi requested the government of Sri Lanka to expedite the process of national reconciliation which devolved wide powers to the Tamil community in a united Sri Lanka. He called for early and full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and going beyond would contribute to this process. He expressed interest in early launch of the 500 MW Sampur Coal Power project and greater connectivity between the two countries.
During his meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Modi reinterred India’s commitment to the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan. Indian premier wished for a prosperous, independent and sovereign Afghanistan and called for the reconciliation process that would be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled.
At the meeting with Prime Minister of Tshering Tobgay of Bhutan, Modi assured Bhutan support for their socio-economic development and agreed to commence four new joint venture hydroelectric projects with a generating capacity of 2120 MW in Bhutan. He also committed his first foreign visit to Bhutan as mark of long standing friendship with neighboring country and called it B4B i.e Bharat for Bhutan.
Indian Prime Minister’s meeting with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen made both the leaders to agree to take measures to further strengthen investment and trade cooperation as well as cooperation in projects especially in petroleum and natural gas sector, tourism and educational sectors. Both have agreed to work together in the field of maritime security work with all other member countries to further strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association.
Meeting with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of Nepal, Prime Minister Modi stressed for further strengthening the connectivity and economic inter-linkages between India and Nepal, including through projects for rail and road connectivity. He also stressed the importance of expediting implementation of these projects and particularly projects in the hydropower and transmission sectors.
Meeting with Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Prime Minister Modi appreciated the cooperation of Bangladesh with India in all areas of mutual interest including security, power, border management, rail and road transport.
Going by the brief of Narendra Modi’s meetings with the SAARC leaders that the media has brought out, it appears that he may like to speed up the developmental process in the region on priority basis.
This may be a nice strategy from New Delhi’s point of view, but from the individual countries and SAARC as a whole, skirting the differences and to carry forward the baggage of history to unforeseen future may not be a pragmatic approach. This is something skeptics are worried about and who may like to see the differences first being ironed out and then set the tone of the integration of South Asian nations in fast mode.
Terrorism is one of the key concerns in the South Asian region. Several countries including India are affected by it. Terrorism is being used as a method to highlights certain ills that has been plaguing the region for a very long time. The leadership of the region is skirting them under one pretext or other avoiding any mutually agreeable stand.
As long as the root cause of terrorism is not addressed, counter terrorism method cannot be sufficient to address the core issues. Blaming the other country, may sooth the nationalistic feelings, but it won’t rein in the outraged sentiments that are looking for an honorable settlement of their vexed issue.
A strong leadership in India is the needed to integrate the region into dynamic global entity. The demand of time is to moderate the national identity, and sync it with the regional identity and then negotiate with the forces of globalization. Revisiting South Asia under Narendra Modi has kindled such expectations.
Will India bury the hatchets with the South Asian nation that obstructs SAARC’s development? Narendra Modi is being projected as a strong leader who can take bold decisions. Will he solve all the bilateral problems with the neighboring countries are something being watched?
It is expected from the new Indian Prime Minister to settle the history and geography laden bilateral issues with the neighboring countries and steer SAARC under his leadership to the ideals of a common South Asian entity.
[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]