Modi begins his tryst with destiny in South Asia
by Ashok B Sharma on 06 Jun 2014 2 Comments
Manmohan Singh began his tenure as Prime Minister honeymooning with the 7-nation BIMSTEC group and by a strange coincidence, the third BIMSTEC Summit in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar in March 2014 was his last foreign tour. He attended the first BIMESTEC Summit in Bangkok in Thailand in July 2004, soon after taking over as Prime Minister in May, and presided over the second BIMSTEC Summit in November 2008.


Narendra Modi chose his foreign policy debut in a different way. On the very day of taking oath on May 26, seven SAARC leaders (India is the eighth member of this body) and Mauritius were invited to join the ceremony, the first time that any foreign Head of State or Government attended the oath-taking of an Indian Prime Minister.


Modi thus signalled the need for member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to cooperate, set differences aside, and present a united face to the world. There is need to learn from each others’ success stories like micro-finance in Bangladesh, tourism in Maldives and environment and ecological conservation in Bhutan.


The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), however, does not include SAARC members like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives, but includes Myanmar and Thailand. BIMSTEC was designed as a bridge between India and some South Asian countries and South-East Asia, particularly the ASEAN block.


The Prime Minister has signalled that India will work to ensure that South Asia works as a unified bloc. After some dilly dallying, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to New Delhi and as a goodwill gesture on the day before his visit, ordered the release of 151 Indian fishermen languishing in Pakistani jails. Indian activists claim that there are about 229 Indian fishermen and 803 boats in custody of Pakistan.


Towards the end of Manmohan Singh’s dispensation, the relationship between Islamabad and New Delhi soured with breakdown in dialogue and incidents like the beheading of an Indian soldier at the border, the custodial death of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistan jail, and Islamabad’s obduracy in booking the culprits of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attack and stopping the export of terror as demanded by India. As a result Manmohan Singh was unable to visit Pakistan.


But Modi indicated a willingness to begin on a clean slate, and Nawaz Sharif responded with a plea to pick up the thread from the Lahore Declaration of 1999. According to the Pakistan Prime Minister’s advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, all contentious issues were discussed with Modi, including Kashmir (though this has not been confirmed by the Indian side). Sharif did not meet the separatist Hurriyat leaders, as is the usual practice with visiting Pakistani leaders; his pre-departure statement contained no reference to Kashmir.


Modi is said to have done some tough talking, conveying to his Pakistani counterpart India’s concerns relating to terrorism, and asking Islamabad to abide by its commitment to prevent its territory being used for terrorism against India; he pressed for the speedy trial of the culprits of 26/11. The Indian Prime Minister reportedly assured his Pakistani counterpart about discussing the Kashmir issue and speeding up trials of the Samjhauta Express blast accused. It was agreed that foreign secretaries of both countries would meet to take the process forward, including full normalisation of trade on the basis of the September 2012 roadmap.


Ignoring the voices of terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided to attend Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. Just before Karzai’s visit, terrorists attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, but Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Indo-Tibetan Border Police forces at the consulate repulsed the attack. Prime Minister Modi expressed gratitude for the ANSF vigilance and promised to work together for the development of Afghanistan.   


Developments in Sri Lanka are another area of concern. In his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Modi urged him to meet the aspirations of the Tamil population for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in Sri Lanka and early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Before President Rajapaksa arrived, Sri Lanka released 29 Indian fishermen in its custody. The two leaders also discussed the fishermen issue. Prime Minister Modi expressed interest in an early launch of the 500 MW Sampur Coal Project and urged greater connectivity between the two countries.


Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay agreed to commence four new joint venture hydroelectric projects in Bhutan with Indian cooperation, to generate 2120 MW power with buy back facilities.


President Abdullah Yameen of Maldives agreed to promote investment cooperation with India in projects that would strengthen regional and sub-regional transport and connectivity to mutual advantage. Modi expressed support for cooperation in oil exploration, tourism and education.


Narendra Modi urged Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to expedite implementation of hydropower projects and transmission lines and strengthen connectivity with India, particularly through rail and road. Modi will be visiting Nepal in November for the 18th SAARC Summit.


Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could not attend the oath-taking ceremony but sent Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhary. Modi assured Dr Chaudhary that India would consider sharing of Teesta waters and implementation of the land boundary agreement.


The presence of Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam of Mauritius, a member country of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, was significant. Mauritius is considered a haven for tax evaders, but Dr Ramgoolam agreed to exchange all tax related information with India and strengthen cooperation in maritime security, renewable energy and blue economy.


Modi, who has began his foreign diplomacy with South Asian and Indian Ocean Rim Association nations, intends to reach out to the immediate neighbourhood, including ASEAN, Central Asian Republics, Africa and on to Latin America. Together with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, India is expected to take a higher profile in the international community in the days to come. 

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