In his yet unpublished autobiography (excerpts of which are public) Natwar Singh has accused former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (implying the then Government) of not having any foreign policy. The accusation needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as the author had gone underground for many years in backdrop of the oil scam and estrangement with hierarchy of the political party that he belonged too.
But examination of events of the last decade by scholars and media did indicate that while India was focused on its ‘Look East’ policy, the immediate neighbourhood was given short shrift – with direct consequences to our national security. Additionally, our unusually ‘soft’ response to Pakistan and China was also noticeably significant – with veteran R&AW officers stating that those in power who had used hawala channels to siphon off black money may well be under ISI blackmail since hawala in India is run by Dawood Ibrahim’s ‘D’ Company, Dawood himself being an ISI protégé. It is obvious that Prime Minister Modi was cognizant of this myopic defect and therefore, decided to address it straightaway – as was witnessed from the invitation to SAARC heads for his swearing in and that of his government. The Prime Minister’s first visit abroad to Bhutan was the second shot to treat this myopia, even as our Foreign Minister visited Bangladesh.
Significant milestones were achieved during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bhutan, the relationship described as “Special” by him right at the outset: both countries reiterated commitment to achieve the 10,000 MW target in hydropower cooperation; not allowing respective territories to be used for interests “inimical” to each other; inauguration of the building of Supreme Court of Bhutan built by India; laying foundation stone of the 600MW Kholongchu Hydroelectric joint India-Bhutan project; announcement of exempting Bhutan from any ban on export of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice; commitment to expand FTA; Indian PM mooting idea of an annual hill sports festival with India’s northeastern states along with Bhutan and Nepal; doubling of scholarships being provided to Bhutanese students in India; Indian promise to assist Bhutan set up a digital library providing access
to two million books and periodicals, and; mutual commitment to extensive development cooperation and enhancing economic ties.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Bangladesh too in her own words was an “excellent beginning” in addressing each others’ concerns in the spirit of good neighbourliness. In Bangladesh, she had a series of meetings including with the President, Prime Minister and delegation level talks with her counterpart. She gave a commitment to address Bangladesh concerns over sharing of Teesta waters and implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in a manner that improves the welfare and well-being of people of both countries.
As for Nepal, Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Nepal (17 years after an Indian PM visited that country) is another gigantic step in addressing the myopia in India’s foreign outlook. That the PM’s visit was preceded by the visit of the Foreign Minister is significant as well. India and Nepal have ancient and deep cultural and religious ties but intransigence coupled with China’s pro-active application of soft power (not counting links with Maoists – application of hard proxy power?) had somehow permeated a feeling of distrust about India in the political class in Nepal. That distrust to a measure was addressed when the Nepalese PM attended the swearing in of Prime Minister Modi.
There are other issues like the suspicion within Nepal of the Indian origin Madheshi population of Nepal settled along the border with India, considered Indian agents. Of course there have been reports about severe restrictions on Tibetan refugees lodged in Nepal on insistence China, some even handed over to Chinese authorities, and some one lakh Bhuplaese that fled Bhutan along with an RBA rebel officer lodged in Nepal but these are internal issues of Nepal. What is relevant to us are that India and Nepal have extraordinary deep ties including with large number of Nepalese soldiers in Indian Army. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was unambiguous in stating that “India was not the ‘Big Brother’ but just an elder brother”, which was received well. The draft Power Trade Agreement (PTA) with 100 per cent FDI by India is still under examination by Nepal. Sushma Swaraj also clarified that India had no favorites in Nepal and that the federal structure of Nepal is its internal affair. The other vexed issues were the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that was proposed by Nepal at the time of signing the treaty but now viewed unequal by the Nepalese, border settlement, unequal bilateral trade, etc. Significantly, the third meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission held in July 2014 in Kathmandu (held after 23 years) has already reiterated the need for reviewing, adjusting and updating the Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950, reflecting the current realities, also directing the Foreign Secretaries to make necessary recommendations to that end and for the NepalIndia Boundary Working Group to commence field work earliest.
Prior to leaving for Nepal, Prime Minister Modi had said, “My visit reflects our shared heritage of nature, history, culture, spiritualism and religion. It highlights the high priority that my Government attaches to our relations with Nepal and our determination to take our relationship to an entirely new level”. In Nepal, Prime Minister Modi won the hearts of Nepalese. Amongst the various interactions, Prime Minister Modi met Prime Minister of Nepal, Sushil Koirala. Delegation-level talks were also held between the two sides. Asserting that India respects Nepal’s sovereignty, the Prime Minister hoped that the process of Constitution-making would be completed soon. He stressed the need for prioritising infrastructure in the pace of development, Narendra Modi said that the bridge of trust between the two nations should be strengthened. Three agreements were signed between the two countries in presence of the Prime Ministers, namely: Letter of Exchange for establishing Pancheswor Development Authority; MoU in the health sector for Goiter Control Program, and; Cooperation between Doordarshan and Nepal TV. Speaking to Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, the Prime Minister gave a HIT formula for Nepal, saying India wants to help Nepal build highways (H), information highways (I) and transways - transmission lines (T). He also announced: keenness to double power supply to Nepal; 10,000 crore concessional line of credit to Nepal for development; promise to build pipelines to help transport oil to Nepal; increased Indian scholarships to students from Nepal; help to Nepal emerge as a major exporter of herbal medicines; help develop tourism potential of Nepal, both as a spiritual, and adventure tourism destination; bridge on the Mahakali river and the Pancheshwar multi-purpose project to be taken up at the earliest; making telephone calls between India and Nepal cheaper; making India-Nepal border a bridge which helps bring prosperity to both sides, and; assistance to Nepal in the fields of organic farming, and soil health.
There is an apparent need to coordinate the approach in dealing with our neighbours at national level. India objected to the UN probe for human rights violations by Sri Lanka during the last seven years of the three decade long conflict and denied visa to UN investigation committee mandated by a resolution adopted at UNHCR in March 2013 but recently the U-19 cricket team of Sri Lanka was turned back immediately on arrival at Chennai – causing avoidable embarrassment. When Tamil Nadu politics had prevented Sri Lankan cricketers participate in the recently held IPL, where was the question of organising the U-19 international cricket tournament in Chennai? Also, while we address the aforesaid myopia, equally important is the need to address the hyperopia in our foreign outlook. For example, the reason why our age old strategic partner Russia has gone ahead with the sale of Mi-35 attack helicopters and other weapon platforms to Pakistan needs examination, same as cessation of provision of two metre satellite imagery by Russia to us that adversely affects targeting by our weapon systems. Questions have also been raised in many quarters that when a categorical statement had been made in Parliament that India has equally good relations with both Israel and Palestine, why did India not abstain while voting at the UNHCR?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting the Prime Minister of Nepal, Sushil Koirala in
Kathmandu, Nepal, on August 3, 2014
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with
the Nepalese people in Kathmandu