The great Indian elections are over. The world’s largest democracy has spoken and spoken audibly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is back in power with an overwhelming majority. The previous term of Modi was more about building the trust of people, which was very much reflected in the results of the 2019 elections. Despite many economic reforms like Demonetisation, GST and Central Bank’s policy revamps being subjected to long harangues by opposition leaders, the young Indian electorate voted for Modi’s ‘niyaat’ (intention) to make a new India.
Prime Minister Modi did a Lee Kuan Yew, by appointing policy wonk and former diplomat S. Jaishankar as the Union Cabinet Minister for External Affairs. Mr. Jaishankar is the first former Foreign Secretary to join the government without being a member of the ruling party. A diplomat extraordinaire, Mr. Jaishankar was also responsible for boosting India’s campaign for a seat at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control regimes. As India’s Ambassador to China in Beijing, he played a vital role in handling the issue of stapled visa for Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh and later, as Foreign Secretary, he steered the response to the 73-day Doklam standoff in 2017. Lee Kuan Yew was known for infusing technocracy into governance. This unprecedented appointment is an attempt to add further strategic heft and vibrancy to India’s external engagement. A teaser of India’s new diplomacy was seen when BIMSTEC leaders were invited for swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When Modi took oath as Prime Minister in 2014, he had invited leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had attended the event. The idea was to focus on India’s neighbourhood. As a teaser of India’s new diplomacy, this time, Prime Minister Modi chose to invite leaders of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), another regional grouping in which six SAARC nations are members except Pakistan.
In his first media address after taking charge as the EAM, Mr. Jaishankar said, “India should follow a generous policy to pave the way for better connectivity with countries in South Asia and should incentivise cooperation in the neighbourhood by often stepping out and not emphasising too much on reciprocity. SAARC has certain problems and I think we know. Even if you were to put terrorism issue aside, there are connectivity issues, there are trade issues out there. If you look why BIMSTEC leaders were invited for the swearing-in because we see today an energy, a possibility, a mindset in BIMSTEC which fits with our very optimistic vision of economic cooperation.”
After the Uri attack of 2016, India boycotted the SAARC summit, after which the summit was called off. India then invited BIMSTEC leaders to the BRICS outreach summit in Goa in 2016. The 2018 BIMSTEC summit in Nepal saw counterterrorism as a broad theme. The grouping passed a resolution demanding that states that “encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups be held accountable.”
Policy experts across the globe are predicting an unfortunate end of the SAARC regime. However, BIMSTEC is more valuable, not for India but also for the global polity. BIMSTEC was constituted to harness shared and accelerated growth through mutual cooperation in different areas of common interests by mitigating the onslaught of globalization and by utilizing regional resources and geographical advantages. BIMSTEC acts as a bridge between South and South East Asia and symbolises a reinforcement of relations among these countries. Demographically the region is home to around 1.5 billion people which constitute around 22% of the global population with an integrated gross domestic product (GDP) of 2.7 trillion economy. Economically in the last five years, BIMSTEC States were able to sustain an average 6.5% growth trajectory despite the global financial meltdown. “This commitment is driven by… the potential economic rewards of greater regional connectivity,” notes Constantino Xavier in his paper Bridging the Bay of Bengal: Toward a Stronger BIMSTEC for Carnegie India.
Modi 2.0 has set its priorities straight. Global governance and building India as a strategic power in the Asian region is quintessential if India wants to continue its dominance as a major economic power in global politics. Today, diplomacy is all about trade and the military. India faces major problems when it comes to project implementation and institutional coordination. With Pakistan out of the picture with strengthening political will and untapped potential of BIMSTEC, India looks at it as a route to ensure connectivity and enhance regional trade to deal with project completion issues.
Greater coordination among countries ensures greater integration of resources both logistical and technical. Within a week of coming into power, the new Government has sent its signals wide and clear. It would be interesting to see how Modi 2.0 will shape the neighbourhood policy in the coming years.