By Bhim Bhurtel
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated to arrive in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, a Himalayan nation sandwiched between the two Asian giants China and India, on August 30 for a two-day visit. It will be Modi’s fourth visit to Nepal since his accession to the office of prime minister in May 2014 and the second visit after the backlash from the Indian economic blockade on Nepal as the country promulgated its constitution in defiance of New Delhi on September 20, 2015. Some 2,500 or more people lost their lives because of the extreme shortage of fuel and medicines due to the Indian-sponsored carnage in the cold winter of 2015-16 in Nepal.
Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal for a fourth time in a five-year tenure since India’s independence in 1947. By so doing, he is also abiding by the promise he made in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly in 2014 that he would continue visiting Nepal, unlike his predecessors.
However, Modi’s stopover in Kathmandu this time is not a formal visit. Instead his main purpose is to join in the fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiatives for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that is to be held in Kathmandu on August 30-31.
Modi is striving to keep his Hindu-nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in power in upcoming Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) election to be held next May. His strategy constitutes two parts: consolidating domestic politics and restoring international relations in India’s neighborhood.
India’s relations with its immediate neighbors are at a post- independence nadir, and it could be that the BJP’s inability to handle the neighborhood will be the most pressing agenda in the general election. Therefore, it may be a part of Modi’s plans to use BIMSTEC summit to pacify the immense criticisms from the opposition parties in Parliament along with credible and sensible foreign-policy experts in the media over one diplomatic debacle after another and to overhaul the trust of the Indian voters in 2019.
BIMSTEC is a Dhaka-based regional initiative established on June 6, 1997, that comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. India naturally tries to use this forum as a substitute for the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to engage with its neighbors and seclude Pakistan in the region.
Pakistan was scheduled to host the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad on November 15-16, 2016. However, Modi decided to boycott the summit in the aftermath of the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016 and the Uri attack the following September. India not only pulled out of the summit itself but also put diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka to drop out as well. These countries canceled their participation in the summit as India wanted, but Nepal remained in because of its ongoing chairmanship of SAARC.
Later, Pakistan announced the postponement of the summit for the time being based on the provision in the SAARC Charter that the summit can be held only with the participation of all eight member countries. Pakistan said a new date would be rescheduled soon, but that has not happened to date.
Coincidentally, Nepal has been the chair of both regional initiatives, BIMSTEC and SAARC, since 2015, and it wants summits of both to go ahead, but the SAARC process has ceased as India continues to halt the process to seclude Pakistan as far as it can in regional and international forums because of the ongoing India-Pakistan tensions.
Interim Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Kathmandu after K P Sharm Oli became the prime minister of Nepal to congratulate him on March 5 this year and discussed the resuscitation of the SAARC process. Both prime ministers agreed that the summit should be held in Pakistan as soon as possible. As the chairman of SAARC, Oli tried to cajole Modi into reviving the SAARC process, but Modi rejected Oli’s overture in a plainspoken way at the joint press conference of the two prime ministers in New Delhi during Oli’s formal trip to India on April 6-8.
India adopted the policy to isolate Pakistan in every regional and international forum that India can influence after the Uri attack, and its boycott of the SAARC summit in Islamabad was part of India’s strategy to disengage Pakistan in the region. India wants to cultivate the opportunity to continue the tough line against Pakistan by sequestering it in the region while engaging with other South Asian countries through BIMSTEC.
However, Indian policy toward Pakistan is contradictory, since India shared the forum with Pakistan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on June 9-10 in Qingdao, China. Both India and Pakistan became full members of the Eurasian political, economic and security alliance on June 9, 2017, at the summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, after India had already started isolating Pakistan in the South Asian region.
Many diplomatic pundits think the reason for this double standard is either India’s “big brother” attitude toward its neighbors or that New Delhi has an asymmetric relationship with Beijing, as there is also an asymmetric relationship that persists between New Delhi and other South Asian capitals except Islamabad.
The paradoxical regional diplomacy of India has two possible outcomes in the future.
First, India is under an illusion that it has gained something by isolating Pakistan in the short term; however, in the long term, India will lose its whole grounding in the region. India has been miscalculating its actual position, ability, strength, and its responsibility in the region and has been losing its position as the regional rule-maker in South Asia.
Second, if India’s procrastination on SAARC continues, that forum will vanish and its current member countries will become members of the SCO. For instance, Afghanistan had already obtained observer status in the SCO, in 2012. Nepal and Sri Lanka are currently dialogue partners and they along with Bangladesh have applied for observer status. Maldives has also applied for dialogue-partner status.
If all of the South Asian countries are members of the SCO, then naturally there will be no need for a separate South Asia regional forum. The attraction of India’s immediate neighboring countries to the SCO indicates room for China’s consolidation of further influence and presence in the region. Consequently, India will ultimately lose its legitimate influence in South Asia if it continues to hold up the SAARC process indefinitely.
SAARC is the best platform for India leading subcontinental issues, as it can set the precedence of regional rule-making and can gain leverage for Indian ambitions to be the part of current global governance. However, because of India’s myopic diplomacy to seclude Pakistan, it has been losing its regional constituency.
If India continues to overlook SAARC and tries to use BIMSTEC as an alternative, its claim on global governance won’t be heard seriously within and outside of the region. India needs to realize the price of its greatness in the region, which means realizing its responsibilities to lead the region. The Indian foreign-policy regime seems oblivious to the fact that double standards and the contradictory position on Pakistan in SAARC and the SCO will be counterproductive in the long run.
About the Author: Bhim Bhutel is managing editor of www.sadrishya.com, visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuwan University in Kathmandu, and was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. The article was derived from atimes.com