Win­ning Friends and In­flu­enc­ing Neigh­bours

The Economic Times - - World View - Sudeshna Sen

While Naren­dra Modi cam­paigned on the eco­nomic plat­form, his first act as PM is one of for­eign pol­icy: a move that has taken al­most ev­ery­one un­awares.

Nat­u­rally, the head­lines are be­ing hogged by what will be a his­toric first, Nawaz Sharif of Pak­istan vis­it­ing a new In­dian PM on his first day in of­fice. That, of course, is as it should be, given that re­la­tions with Pak­istan have to be the cor­ner­stone of In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy. Invit­ing the rest of the SAARC heads — while many are view­ing it as suit­able win­dow­dress­ing for Sharif ’s visit — is send­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent mes­sage to the global com­mu­nity. I’m be­ing asked this ques­tion over the past few days: is Modi de­liv­er­ing a sub­tle snub to the grand pow­ers of US and Europe, who snubbed him in the past, by invit­ing close neigh­bours? It’s fairly well known that un­like the An­glophile regimes of the past, Modi is keener to de­velop trade and eco­nomic ties in Asia. Given that Asia is where the growth op­por­tu­ni­ties are, that’s a no-brainer. Ev­ery­one in the world wants more eco­nomic re­la­tions in Asia. On the other hand, is this just about eco­nom­ics or are we see­ing a hint of a new for­eign pol­icy? In­dia, tra­di­tion­ally, has punched far be­low its weight in re­gional and geopo­lit­i­cal cir­cles. You don’t have to be the US or China to wield geopo­lit­i­cal clout. Ask Rus­sia, or Bri­tain, or France, mid­dling coun­tries that wield enor­mous clout in geopo­lit­i­cal and re­gional mat­ters.

It doesn’t take a po­lit­i­cal guru to work out that if In­dia can win friends and in­flu­ence people among its neigh­bours — in the ASEAN re­gion, in SAARC — the diplo­matic and eco­nomic div­i­dends will be enor­mous. While I agree that re­la­tions with Pak­istan are crit­i­cal, the trou­ble with In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy has been an ob­ses­sion with Pak­istan even at global fo­rums where the re­la­tions are ir­rel­e­vant, and fre- quently at the ex­pense of other re­la­tion­ships, in the neigh­bour­hood. Pak­istan seems to de­fine In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy and its iden­tity in geopo­lit­i­cal equa­tions. It’s a ques­tion that people in the di­as­pora ask: why is In­dia so in­su­lar and ob­sessed with Pak­istan? Ev­ery­one knows that In­dia has the eco­nomic stand­ing and sheer size to cre­ate a sub­con­ti­nen­tal power bloc. As a se­nior Pak­istani busi­ness­man once told me, In­dia is the big brother in the re­gion: “Yes, we do have prob­lems in Pak­istan, but a lot of Pak­ista­nis look to In­dia to take the lead in en­sur­ing things like those ter­ror at­tacks don’t hap­pen.”

I’d like to hope that Modi’s in­vite to Sharif is an in­di­ca­tion that In­dia is ready to start tak­ing on the role of big brother, and set­ting an agenda in the re­gion. I’d pre­fer to see Modi’s in­vite of the other SAARC lead­ers not as win­dow­dress­ing, but as an ac­knowl­edge­ment that there’s more to the re­gion than Indo-Pak ties. While ev­ery­one in In­dia pays lip ser­vice to the im­por­tance of neigh­bours, the fact is that the In­dian es­tab­lish­ment ig­nores the smaller neigh­bours. Re­viv­ing the SAARC um­brella is yet an­other global mes­sage. SAARC has be­come pretty much de­funct, what with the rise and rise of China. So this is also a mes­sage to China, where Modi is ap­par­ently pop­u­lar, that In­dia means busi­ness, and not nec­es­sar­ily from a po­si­tion of weak­ness. I don’t know if that is Modi’s game plan, but to the rest of the world, the mes­sage we’re get­ting is that In­dia is will­ing, if not ready, to swim in deeper in­ter­na­tional wa­ters.

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