It is tempting to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to the leaders of a Bay of Bengal forum for the inauguration of his second term, as a “snub to Pakistan”. After all five years ago, the PM had invited the leaders of the South Asian forum, SAARC, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his swearing-in ceremony. But the talk of a snub misses the story of the larger regional dynamic that has emerged over the last few years. When he travelled to the Kathmandu summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu at the end of 2014, PM Modi may have figured out that the future of SAARC was bleak. At the summit, Nawaz Sharif pulled out of regional connectivity agreements that were ready for signature. Officials from Islamabad were very much part of the prolonged and painful negotiations to finalise the agreements. Quite clearly, the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi had pulled the plug at the very last minute.
The fiasco at Kathmandu evidently led the PM to shift the focus to India’s sub-regional cooperation within South Asia with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal. PM Modi saw that Pakistan is not ready for regional integration with India and that summits are not going to get the Pakistan horse to drink at the SAARC waters. Instead of holding the rest of the region hostage, India chose to expand regionalism with the BBIN forum. The PM also looked beyond SAARC to revive the moribund BIMSTEC regional forum that brings together five South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka) and two South East Asian countries (Myanmar and Thailand).
That it is not invited to the PM’s oath-taking ceremony on Thursday does not mean Pakistan will disappear from India’s foreign policy agenda. During the last few years, Modi has demonstrated his political will for either peace or war with Pakistan. If he travelled to Lahore on short notice at the end of 2015, he was ready to attack a terror camp at Balakot in February 2018. Modi will have an opportunity to engage Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan at a Central Asian summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan next month. Any productive meeting with the Pakistani leadership needs significant preparation and hopefully there are back channel conversations underway. While Pakistan to the west is a big challenge that needs to be carefully managed, the east is full of opportunities — marked by the economic resurgence of Bangladesh and Myanmar that form a bridge to the dynamic region of East Asia. Modi has talked the talk on BIMSTEC in the first term. He must now walk the walk, by committing substantive resources for the strengthening of BIMSTEC and removing the multiple obstacles within India for the rapid economic integration of the Bay of Bengal littoral.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines