Although Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif will draw most of the media attention at the anointment of Narendra Modi as India’s 14th prime minister at Rashtrapati Bhawan today, there is no underestimating the importance of the seven other regional leaders who will be present at the occasion.
For Modi, Nawaz Sharif’s willingness to show up at the launch of his government is a political bonus. If Modi is luckier than Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he might make some sustainable progress with Pakistan. As a realist, however, Modi should be aware that major breakthroughs are unlikely amid the current political flux within Pakistan and Sharif’s deteriorating relations with the all-powerful army.
But it is with the other neighbours that Modi has the opportunity to transact much economic and political business in his five-year tenure as prime minister of India. Modi’s determination to pursue a vigorous regional diplomacy appears to rest on five foundations.
For one, Modi has appreciated the much-neglected fact that foreign policy begins at the nation’s borders. India’s traditional diplomatic discourse is obsessed with grand concepts such as non-alignment and the elusive quest for the leadership of the global South.
It has been rather easy for the Indian strategic community to forget the critical importance of tending one’s own neighbourhood in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean. Worse still, Delhi has been unwilling to confront and address the reasons for the steady loss of Indian influence in the region over the last many decades. An India that fails to reclaim its primacy in the subcontinent, Modi can now see, can’t really make a lasting impression on the world beyond.
Second, Modi has understood the importance of discarding the diplomatic formalism that has bedevilled India’s engagement with the region. Consider, for example, Manmohan Singh’s legacy on regional diplomacy. In his decade-long tenure as PM, Singh was either unwilling or unable to step across the borders to catch up with the leaders next door. Singh travelled for regional summits once each in Dhaka, Colombo, Thimphu and Male. He travelled twice to Kabul and once each to Dhaka and Thimphu on bilateral business. By any measure, this is a dismal diplomatic record.
In inviting the regional leaders for his inauguration, Modi is suggesting that contacts with the neighbours should be made a matter of routine rather than treated as exceptional occasions. In his interactions with the South Asian leaders after the swearing in, Modi must tell them he is ready to visit all neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, at the earliest and will order his cabinet colleagues to do the same. There is some speculation that Modi might respond positively to the request of Sheikh Hasina, the premier of Bangladesh, to make Dhaka his first foreign destination as India’s prime minister.
Third, at continued…