Five years after he invited leaders from SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in another diplomatic move to reach out to neighbouring countries, has invited leaders from the BIMSTEC countries, Kyrgyz Republic and Mauritius for the May 30 ceremony that will mark his return to office.
Leaders from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan — which comprise the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) — have been invited, as part of the Modi government’s focus on its “Neighbourhood First” policy.
The President of the Kyrgyz Republic, the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the Prime Minister of Mauritius, who was Chief Guest at this year’s Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, have also been invited.
Moving to break new ground
This is another effort to reach out diplomatically to the neighbourhood, diaspora and the China-Russia-led regional grouping of Central Asian countries. While PM’s SAARC effort last time failed to take off owing to strained ties with Pakistan, much will depend on the progress Delhi makes with these groupings.
By inviting the leaders from BIMSTEC, instead of SAARC, Delhi has decided to keep Pakistan out of its engagement with the region. In May 2014, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had attended the ceremony and that had raised hopes for a new beginning in the bilateral relationship, but that did not go as planned. And SAARC was the casualty, since the strain in India-Pakistan ties cast a shadow on the regional grouping.
Engaging with BIMSTEC, Delhi is taking a step towards wooing the region which is the only real bridge between South and Southeast Asia — it has five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN.
The Bay of Bengal hosts about one-fourth of the world’s population — 22 per cent who live in the seven countries around it, with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) close to $2.7 trillion.
And from the strategic lens, the Bay of Bengal, a strategic funnel to the Strait of Malacca, has emerged as a key theatre for an increasingly pro-active China, and BIMSTEC the potential area where both Delhi and Beijing hope to dominate.
For India, it is a natural platform to fulfil its key foreign policy priorities of “Neighborhood First” and “Act East”.
Announcing the government’s decision Monday, the official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, said, “Government of India has invited the leaders of the BIMSTEC Member States for the swearing-in ceremony. This is in line with Government’s focus on its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. The President of the Kyrgyz Republic, who is the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Prime Minister of Mauritius, who was the Chief Guest at this year’s Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, have also been invited.”
Sources said while Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to go for a bilateral visit to Japan from May 29, Thailand’s PM Prayuth Chan-ocha is busy with his own government-formation after the elections, and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is also likely to be away for a visit to the Czech Republic and Hungary. “We will see who is able to make it from these countries,” sources said.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has already conveyed his willingness to attend the ceremony on May 30.
By inviting the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the signal is to reach out to the new grouping in which India became a member in 2017.
The grouping comprises China, Russia and four Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz Republic — and Pakistan. The SCO gives a platform to India to further its interests in Central Asia, and primarily focuses on connectivity and counter-terrorism.
Modi is scheduled to visit Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyz Republic, on June 13 and 14 to attend the SCO summit, which is likely to be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin among others.
And, an invitation to the Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who was chief guest at the PBD held in Varanasi this January, is a signal to the Indian diaspora, to which Modi has carefully reached out in the last five years.
Sources said while the idea for the presence of international leaders at the ceremony was mooted in the first few hours of the victory itself, back channels were activated to ascertain the availability of leaders from the neighborhood and then the decision was finally taken to invite these eight countries — six from BIMSTEC, Kyrgyz Republic and Mauritius.
By moving away from SAARC, India’s move is seen as engaging with all SAARC countries, except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Maldives.
According to Maldivian sources, Modi is planning to visit the island nation as his first bilateral visit in early June. And, with Afghanistan, New Delhi feels that its bilateral ties are robust enough and high-level exchanges are taking place, as a top Afghan leader Umer Daudzai was in India last week.