India doesn’t really want to get into talks with Pakistan; it’s looking beyond, to engage with the region as a whole

It isn’t known what it would take for Indian media to end its Pakistan fixation. Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is headed for Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit on 13 and 14 June — an annual event of a China-dominated grouping that also includes Pakistan — speculation was rife in Indian media that an informal bilateral talks between Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Imran Khan could be on cards. If not a bilateral, at least a ‘pull-aside’ chit-chat on the sidelines, gushed an excitable media.

The basis of the speculation was a personal visit to India by Pakistan’s foreign secretary Sohail Mahmood during Eid. Mahmood, the former Pakistani high commissioner to India who served till mid-April, visited New Delhi ostensibly to spend time with family members who are yet to depart. This was taken as an indication that both nations are getting ready to break the ice post Pulwama massacre and the Balakot air strikes.

 India doesn’t really want to get into talks with Pakistan; it’s looking beyond, to engage with the region as a whole

File image of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Image courtesy: The Indian Embassy in Washington DC.

It took Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs (MEA), to clarify that the two sides are not planning any bilateral meeting, formal or informal. Kumar stressed that Pakistan foreign secretary Mahmood’s visit was personal in nature and “no meeting being planned with officials here.”

The very idea of a meeting between India and Pakistan at this juncture is preposterous. Pakistan is under grave financial and diplomatic duress and it is desperate for the dialogue process to start to earn some sort of validation for its foreign policy. The new NDA government led by Modi, which in its previous iteration worked hard behind the scenes to ramp up Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation, would be in no hurry to kick-start the dialogue process and allow Islamabad a diversion and a breather.

Since the Balakot strikes and its aftermath, Pakistan’s all-powerful military, which controls the delinquent nation’s foreign and national security policies, has done nothing to show its intent in controlling the terror tools at its disposal or desist from nurturing the Islamo-fascist terrorist proxies that are used to launch a perpetual asymmetric war against India.

There are question marks on whether it is within its control to do so even if it wanted to. Following the listing of Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist” by the UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee — a move made possible only when Pakistan’s iron brother China relented at the UN — India has got Pakistan right where it wanted: as a pariah nation kept outside the global comity of nations.

The clamour for “talks” with Pakistan each time Modi visits a multilateral forum that also includes Pakistan from a section of Indian media and liberal chatterati, therefore, is not only unfortunate but also misses the larger point.

India wishes no longer to be restricted within the South Asian identity and remain clubbed with Pakistan in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. It seeks instead to carve for itself a larger identity flowing from its ‘neighbourhood first’ doctrine where its ‘South Asian’ identity is subsumed within India’s civilisational past as the fulcrum of Indian subcontinent. It includes, inevitably, the immediate maritime commons.

The ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, that found great salience in Modi’s maiden term as prime minister, may find an even greater expression in his second term as India, under him, seeks to redefine the term “neighbourhood”, as National University of Singapore director C Raja Mohan wrote in Indian Express.

“Nothing has diminished India’s geopolitical thinking than the idea of South Asia. The shrinking of India’s regional vision was also reinforced by India’s inward economic orientation and the sundering of historic commercial ties with the maritime neighbours. Maps of the neighbourhood… barely showed countries like Myanmar, Thailand, or Indonesia with whom India shared land and/or maritime boundaries. The unfortunate conflation of “neighbourhood” with “South Asia” and SAARC was complete.”

The limitations and dysfunctional nature of SAARC, argues Raja Mohan, forced Modi to look beyond the grouping of South Asian landmass onto the maritime neighborhood that dotted the Indian Ocean. His effort to shore up Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation(BIMSTEC) which groups together South and Southeast Asian nations, goes beyond SAARC to include Myanmar and Thailand along with India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

Modi’s focus on BIMSTEC should not be seen as a ploy to avoid Pakistan in realising its plans of regional connectivity and economic integration. It is simultaneously an inclusive idea that draws from the notion of a 5,000-year-old civilization that forms the pivot for the geographical entity and geopolitical idea of an Indian subcontinent.

This view found fuller expression recently in the maiden speech delivered by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar during a seminar in New Delhi where he emphasised on the need for greater connectivity in the Indian Ocean region through vehicles like BIMSTEC, not SAARC, because the latter has fallen prey to geopolitical wrangling.

“SAARC has certain problems and I think we all know what it is even if you were to put terrorism issue aside, there are connectivity and trade issues. If you look at why BIMSTEC leaders were invited for PM's swearing-in, because we see energy, mindset and possibility in it”, Jaishankar said during his maiden public speech as India’s external affairs minister while addressing a summit on Thursday.

Jaishankar left no space for doubt that regional connectivity will form a big part of the foreign policy of NDA-II, perhaps also because “a large part of India’s economy has been externalised and there is a need for India’s foreign policy and the diplomatic machinery to help Indian companies gain better access to overseas markets.”

It’s worth noting that Jaishankar laid stress on India playing the benefactor and not emphasise on “reciprocal trade” that has become the calling card for a new nationalistic impulse putting stress on the idea of globalisation.

“It (neighborhood) will be top priority in next 5 years... Primary responsibility is on India because we are the largest economy. Our growth can serve our neighbors. We need to incentivise cooperation in the neighborhood. It cannot be reciprocal because we have more resources and much greater capability. I would expect to see a generous regime where we take the lead, we have substantial lines of credit, we have programmes of grant assistance for many of our neighbours.”

On a smaller scale, Jaishankar was laying salience on regionalisation creating an enabling atmosphere for commerce and connectivity to thrive so that the Indian subcontinent can look forward to an integrated future. Here, by virtue of the role that India is expected to play, its salience among nations that claim ‘Indian Ocean identity’ may catapult New Delhi beyond the restrictions of a South Asian identity and all the traps that are associated with it.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2019 09:25:38 IST