SAARC and India’s engagement in neighbourhood

India is the largest economy of South Asia which constitutes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives etc. India in order to emerge leader in South Asia has to build regional cooperation and intensifies its bilateral cooperation. The growing vulnerability of South Asia because of underdeveloped economies and conflict space is a consequence of poorly framed diplomatic ties among the nations.

India’s relations in the past

During the cold war time, India’s excessive focus is security-centric and thus it contributed to an image of mistrust and suspicion among the neighboring nations. The articulation of Gujaral Doctrine is aimed at recalibration of India’s neighborhood and whereby a commitment that India would give all it can in good faith and trust to most of its small neighbors without asking for ‘reciprocity’. In the past SAARC was not among the priority in India’s foreign policy, which is evident from the gaps in the PM’s visit to these nations which ranges to 20 years in some cases. However the new government is emphatic to strengthen the regional cooperation and build healthy relations with the neighbors as quite evident from the swearing-in invitation and PM’s maiden visit.

Past engagement

Looking at the size of India’s economy compared to its neighbor, India has been quite supportive of infrastructure development in its neighborhood. Credit line of US$ 1 billion to Bangladesh out of which US$ 200 million is converted to grant; developmental aid to Afghanistan to the tune of US$ 2 billion; engagement with Nepal on various sectors, and the investment in hydroelectric infrastructure in Bhutan. Restoring the Jaffna-Colombo Rail link and rehabilitation work in the post war Sri Lanka.

Recent development

New government’s clarity on improving the relationship with all its neighbors at bilateral level is evident from the recent diplomatic efforts. The reiteration of India’s support at all levels and aiding developmental works in Bhutan and Nepal. The engagements between India and Nepal on Power trade Agreement (PTA) in Sep 2014, project development agreement on 900 MW hydroelectric projects in Nov 2014 are the steps evident to India’s efforts. The consistent engagement of India with Bangladesh despite the political turmoil in Bangladesh sends the positive and reassuring signals. Also the change in the regime in Sri Lanka and its engagement with India, MOU on establishment of Nalanda University in February 2015, throws the growing cynicism among the Indians regarding Chinese expansion in the island.

Problematic areas

Pakistan remains a challenge to India’s promises to engage intensively and strengthening the region. The frequent ceasefire violation, stalling of dialogues, blowing of Pakistani boat in the Arabian Sea made the relations bitter if not better. Border issue and infiltrations remains a major irritant. Afghanistan’s effort to build bridges with the Pakistan military dented somewhat the Indian government’s efforts in Afghanistan. Land border agreement, Teesta agreement still underway between India and Bangladesh. The Tamil fishermen issue erupts time and again constantly reminding of the regional face-off.

Way Forward

New government’s emphasis on the region has revised the expectations among the people about the strengthening regional cooperation. It is hoped that India would shun its cautions and reluctant attitude and engage more intensively to address the bilateral issue with neighbors.

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