Good India-Pakistan relations must for Neighbourhood First Policy
by Ashok B Sharma on 05 Jul 2019 7 Comments

It is good to have harmonious relations with neighbours. Though the initiative has to come from one side, there should be a sense of reciprocity from the other side. Overall it is the will to have good neighbourly relations that matters for both sides. Gestures and reciprocity can build up the process. In daily life, you can opt to change your place and go and settle in a neighbourhood of your choice. But countries just have to live with their neighbours. This is what former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in his effort to normalise relations with Pakistan.


The bitterness in India-Pakistan relations has stalled the working of the South Asian body – SAARC – which is meant for economic cooperation, trade and connectivity in the region. Wisdom says that political differences should be discussed at a different platform divorced from economic activity. India and China have a longstanding boundary dispute which is being negotiated on a different platform, while matters of cooperation between the two countries are an ongoing process. The boundary between India and China is peaceful. This example should be followed in India-Pakistan relations.


The major dispute between New Delhi and Pakistan is over Kashmir and terrorism. India maintains that talks and terrorism cannot go together. Islamabad should stop exporting terrorism to India. It should develop a will for economic cooperation in the region for which relations with India need to be harmonious. Trade war between the two countries would not be the interests of the region. Equally Pakistan should be sincerely interested in peace in Afghanistan.


Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Gas Pipeline is an example of the will expressed by the countries in the region for cooperation. The project when completed will benefit the region. Islamabad has committed to complete the project pipeline in the country by 2022. Another proposed project Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) is in a difficult situation owing to US sanctions against Tehran.  


Islamabad has not given access to India to export goods to Afghanistan. India has found an alternative by developing Chabahar port in Iran and linking by rail line up to Afghanistan for transport of goods. This connectivity, if extended, can cover Central Asian countries and also help to connect with North-South Corridor to Europe which is yet to materialise. This is what India had to do in face of non-cooperation by Pakistan. It should also work out suitable arrangements in face of US sanctions against Iran, particularly for import of crude oil taking US on board.


The fact is that “Neighbourhood First” policy has so far failed to make South Asia a coherent bloc. But hope should not be given up.


While beginning his first innings as prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi invited all SAARC leaders for his swearing-in ceremony. Subsequently a satellite dedicated to SAARC nations was launched. Further, New Delhi plans to launch a 20-tonne space station by 2030 on its own to conduct microgravity experiments. If this launch is successful, India join the elite club of US, Russia and China. It has plans to send human being to space under Gaganyaan Mission by 2022. There are also plans to explore the atmosphere of Sun and Venus. India’s unmanned Chandrayaan-2 Mission will take off on July 15, 2019 to explore the south pole of the moon that has been uncharted so far. The benefits of India’s space program can be extended to the region and serve the needs of connectivity. SAARC countries can work out to their advantage in the ongoing trade war between US and China.


However, in his second innings as prime minister, Modi chose to invite leaders of BIMSTEC – a group of countries that include Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. The prime minister of Mauritius Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, representing the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and president of Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbay Jeenbeov who is the chair of SCO were also invited.


BIMSTEC excludes some South Asian neighbours like Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives. It serves to connect South Asia with ASEAN. It is a bloc for economic cooperation, trade and connectivity and is certainly not an alternative to SAARC that includes other south Asian neighbours like Pakistan, the Maldives and Afghanistan.


After his swearing in, Modi made his first visit to the Maldives where the changed dispensation is favourable to India’s interests. He sent external affairs minister Dr S. Jaishankar to Bhutan.


SCO, Eurasian Union, IORA, ASEAN and CICA are India’s extended neighbourhood. But there is an urgent need to make SAARC a vibrant bloc which comes under India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy. It is vital to revive SAARC as India’s good relations with the Maldives and Sri Lanka have been restored. The only stumbling block in the way of regional development is India-Pakistan relations. The Modi government has to take new initiatives to bring Pakistan to the table. There is hope that S. Jaishankar will initiate the process.


Pakistan should not act under the influence of big powers, be it US or China. Priority should be economic cooperation in the region. Political differences can be negotiated bilaterally. Multilateral forum like SAARC should be allowed to work smoothly for trade and economic development. Pakistan should realise take advantage of India’s “Neighbourhood First Policy”.


If SAARC becomes vibrant and robust, the region’s relations with Central Asian and Eurasian countries in the extended neighbourhood will mark considerable progress. BIMSTEC does not suffer from major hiccups and can act as a bridge between SAARC and ASEAN to fulfill the “Act East Policy”. BIMSTEC can embark on economic development and trade within the bloc. If all South Asia acts in unison for economic development and withstands pressures from big powers like the US and China, it can be a force in Asia and the Indo-Pacific and in the extended neighbourhood.



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