One of the major shortcomings of independent India’s diplomacy has been Delhi’s failure to promote regionalism in the Subcontinent and beyond in the Indian Ocean. Last week’s summit in Kathmandu of the so-called BIMSTEC forum has raised hopes that India might start breaking from that unfortunate but persistent negative trend. The era of global grandstanding in the early decades after Independence left little room for knitting the neighbourhood together. The Partition of the Subcontinent and its bitter legacies made it harder to promote regional cooperation. India’s inward economic orientation dissipated the regional commercial connections inherited from the pre-Independence era. It was only when the statist model broke down at the turn of the 1990s that India turned to regionalism.
The adoption of the logic of economic globalisation also opened the door, tentatively, for existing regional institutions, like the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Under its Look East Policy, India sought greater economic engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Delhi also moved to create new forums like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the BIMSTEC, which aligns India with four South Asian neighbours — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka — and two South East Asian neighbours, Myanmar and Thailand. Success, however, has been elusive. The SAARC remained ineffective because Pakistan tied progress in regional economic integration to a successful resolution of the dispute with India over Jammu and Kashmir. And Delhi could never mobilise the political and policy energy to turn BIMSTEC and IORA into active organisations. What has changed in the last few years is the new political will in Delhi to look beyond Pakistan and SAARC to advance regionalism.
India’s new political commitment to the forum yielded important results at the Kathmandu summit. One was the political recognition of the Bay of Bengal as a sub-region in its own right at the heart of the emerging Indo-Pacific construct. The other was the decision to strengthen BIMSTEC’s institutional foundation by starting negotiations on a long overdue charter. The summit also laid out plans to quickly conclude a free trade treaty, enhance connectivity and boost security cooperation. But there is a long way to go before BIMSTEC becomes a dynamic organisation that can build a peaceful and prosperous Bay of Bengal community. A large part of the burden lies with India. Delhi’s slow pace of internal economic reform, reluctance to open up its market to neighbours, hesitation in turning its frontiers into zones of cooperation, and the inability to embark on major regional commercial infrastructure projects has steadily expanded the gap between India’s promise on regionalism and its performance. Delhi now needs to match its political commitment to the integration of the Bay of Bengal with concrete policy action.