Thursday, June 18, 2015

BBIN Ahead?

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially exchanged the historic India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement that was ratified unanimously by Parliament in the Budget Session. In that, Modi showed great statesmanship in bringing the recalcitrant Chief Minister of Bengal Mamata Banerjee aboard, who has scuttled previous attempts at finally ending a needless border problem that is simply a source of misery as an unfinished business of Partition. In Dhaka, where Modi was greeted by all shades of public and political opinion as a strong leader who could take the promise of SAARC forward, Modi made his regional agenda very clear.

Right now, we can see the contours of the Modi doctrine on SAARC. On the mainland, it is the eastern sector where Modi sees the greatest potential. The Motor Vehicles Agreement that allows free movement of supply lines between Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal (BBIN) is a landmark step towards the operationalization of SAFTA in at least a part of SAARC. It will bring benefits to the three countries that have to cross Indian territory to conduct trade with each other, while also giving India greater access to its landlocked and development-starved Northeast, a region that is very close to the Prime Minister's heart. Water-sharing and a revolution in the 'blue economy' is certainly also on the cards, a win-win situation for all sides.

On the maritime front, the Indian Navy saw its indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant being removed from dry dock. With its induction, slated for 2018 but certainly going to happen only after 2020, India's domination in the Indian Ocean will be complete, provided the Scorpene and Arihant projects reach their goals. Nonetheless, it is clear that Modi plans on bringing Sri Lanka and the Maldives, along with Seychelles and Mauritius, into a tight military engagement with India, as his recent tours have demonstrated. Effectively, in a little over a year, the BJP Government has dismantled China's String of Pearls and brought immense relief to India.

Afghan President Ghani's recent visit to New Delhi saw India pledging further assistance to the country, where 'Hindi' (Indian things) is highly popular. With thawing relations between Iran and the West, India's dream of connecting the Chhabar Port with the Afghanistan Highway system seems close, something that will mark a landmark for the war-torn country. India has sacrificed much in Afghanistan and Modi clearly intends to stay the course.

Thus, in the evolving SAARC architecture that got a new lease of life in 2014, Pakistan is losing out for its intransigence, its refusal to dismantle terrorist outfits like the LeT that target India even as it continues its own Operation Zarb-e-Asb in FATA. To make up for that, Pakistan has turned itself into a client state of China, but if it believes it will receive the benefits of Chinese investments, it need only look at what happened in Africa or Myanmar, where Chinese workers worked for Chinese companies on Chinese projects and were paid in Chinese currency, while the local population looked on. Certainly, CPEC will be important for China to free itself of India's Indian Ocean hold (and the US' Pacific hold), but the Pakistani leadership is being deluded if it believes that a few J14s from China can compensate for the country's economic stagnation. Right now, Pakistan can only generate enough revenue for defense, payroll and some state subsidies, with all other expenditure being met via the IMF, of which India is also a key contributing member. Pakistan's only hope is increased SAARC trade, but it clearly does not want that.

Thus, the Modi architecture for SAARC has the potential to turn the clock on the region's stormy past, all the way back to the days of one civilization that spanned the region. Of course, it depends on his ability to stay the course and expand the resources at the MEA, but the intent is very clear. 

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