Why Inviting Heads Of All SAARC Countries Was A Political And Diplomatic Masterstroke

Posted on May 28, 2014 in Politics

By Bala Sai:

In politics, nothing is what it seems like. For a politician, saying something and meaning exactly that is either an incredible achievement or is just incredibly naive. Given its breathtaking diversity, to hold the country together and to carry it along on a growth curve is no mean task. The man on whose shoulders it rests, is no mean man either.

On the evening of 16th May, when it became apparent that Mr. Modi will walk into 7 RCR with a mandate clear as a sparkling mirror sans the tarnish marks of coalition politics and strong opposition, he stood on the dais of victory in Vadodara and appealed passionately to all the parties of the country, including the opposition, to extend their co-operation to the centre, as, he claimed, his reign will be one of inclusive development and his success will be to never leave anyone behind.

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However, it turned out to be an ambitious statement, as his first ever move as the country’s Prime Minister, i.e., formally becoming one, saw representatives from the southernmost state of the country, including his own allies, sit out. They were but a compromise as Modi hatched a political and diplomatic masterstroke, in extending invitations to the heads of all the SAARC countries. His first challenge pitted regional sentiments against international recognition and Modi, clearly chose the latter.

One of India’s weaker points that has always hindered its vision of becoming a global power, has been its bumpy relationship with its neighbours. When India hasn’t been able to achieve popularity in its own region, exerting global influence seemed a tough ask. Be it the legendary sibling rivalry with Pakistan or the murky relationship with Sri Lanka, courtesy of its human rights violations in handling its ethnic Tamil population, India has never been in a position to secure its neighbourhood’s support and emerge as a leader in the sub-continent. One just has to look at the US’s equations with Mexico and Canada, to understand the role of a stable neighbourhood in powering global aspirations.

Sadly though, Sri Lanka isn’t Mexico, and Pakistan, definitely isn’t Canada. In a race against China for regional dominance (that India has just realized it is a part of), both these countries hold major strategic prominence and China has already made huge inroads in strengthening diplomatic ties with them.

China and Sri Lanka have always shared strong bilateral ties. The two countries have always extended mutual support in all matters of regional or international concerns. A healthy trade and investment climate has seen a phenomenal Chinese role in developing the island nation’s infrastructure, defence, tourism and telecom, all of which, being crucial pillars of the country’s development, have further increased China’s presence and stakes in Sri Lanka’s growth.

In contrast, India’s topsy-turvy relationship inspires lesser confidence. India’s military interference in the Sri Lankan civil war, and the government’s very vocal criticism of Sri Lanka’s methods in the 1980s seriously tarnished any cordiality between the countries. Even though things have warmed up since, the Indian government has looked confused and clueless in regard to its responses, what with Dr. Manmohan Singh refusing to attend the Commonwealth Summit there, while playing to Sri Lanka’s advantage by staying neutral in the UN. These contradicting actions have sent out a weak and confusing signal to our southernmost neighbour.

China’s inroads into Pakistan are strikingly similar to that into Sri Lanka. China has key stakes in Pakistan’s telecom, defence, and infrastructure development. Pakistan is China’s biggest arms buyer, accounting for nearly 47% of Chinese arms exports. China supports Pakistan’s claim in Kashmir and Pakistan reciprocates by voicing support for China pertaining to Taiwan and Tibet. China, further has extended civil nuclear co-operation, graciously accepted by Pakistan. China has stakes in major highways and ports and free trade between them has boosted Pakistan’s economy. Over the years, one can’t help but observe, that Pakistan has slipped away from the US’s grasp, and has fallen comfortably into China’s tight embrace.

On the other hand, Pakistan has indeed been India’s Achilles’ heel ever since the partition; the two nations having been involved in four major wars, border skirmishes and innumerable diplomatic issues, Kashmir being most crucial of them. India has constantly blamed the Pakistan government and the ISI for orchestrating, or housing terror outfits involved in multiple terror attacks on Indian soil, and Pakistan has, most of the times ended up justifying India’s fears. Diplomacy and bilateral talks and meets over cricket matches have been inconsistent and fruitless and constantly interrupted by terror attacks, government changes and military coups. Recent mellowing of relations, with India freeing up FDI from Pakistan and Pakistan offering to talk and resolve crises like Siachen and Sir Creek have given renewed hopes of an effective dialogue with our most turbulent neighbour.

India has traditionally been a late riser, and the same applies here too. Armed with a powerful mandate and free from the shackles of coalition politics and need to satisfy the whims and wishes of regional parties, Modi has now sent a clear signal of India’s awakening. Rising past the pre-election campaign rhetoric about taking a hard stance with Pakistan and weeding out Bangladeshi immigrants, Modi has played the right cards and set out a wave of optimism with his invite. His series of talks with the various heads of state is bound to pave way for an exciting new era of increased regional participation and support.

One can only hope, that amid China’s rampaging dragon and the US’s dominant eagle, the resurgent Indian elephant is here to stay.

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