From the day he assumed office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made clear his priority on establishing strong ties across the South Asian region. His open invitation to the leaders of all the South Asian countries to attend his inauguration set the tone for a foreign policy focused on building economic ties and regional connectivity, a pragmatic bid to overcome South Asia’s longstanding problem as one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. Initial Indian diplomacy with Bangladesh and Nepal helped deliver gains toward a more consolidated South Asian region, at peace and focused on development and economics. Political change in Sri Lanka ended the divisive Rajapaksa era, one of increased tensions with India, and Colombo’s new government immediately expanded ties—with a strong trade component—with India. The South Asian Area of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in November 2014 resulted in region-wide agreements on transportation connectivity, an important infrastructure step to enhancing economic ties.
More than a year and a half later, however, political upheavals in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives have disrupted progress in these countries. It is worth adding, though is of no particular surprise, that India’s efforts to establish trade and connectivity with Pakistan have not been successful. This is due to Pakistan’s own internal problems, but nonetheless impinges upon the broader regional goal. This post looks at where things stand following recent upheavals in the region. In short, instead of a larger area of growing economic cooperation, the narrative has shifted to serious political and security problems.
Nepal: India and Nepal share an open border, allowing completely free trade and movement of citizens. Last fall, it appeared that after a highly successful bilateral visit, and then a successful SAARC summit in Kathmandu, Modi had cemented a positive era for India-Nepal ties. But the past six weeks have led to an ever-deepening crisis in New Delhi’s relations with Kathmandu, linked to Indian unhappiness over the new Nepali constitution, unveiled at the end of September. Nepal’s Madhesis, who live along the India-Nepal border, feel the new constitution does not adequately protect their rights. Madhesi protests along the border have been underway for weeks, and Indian diplomats have been straightforward with their objections to Nepal’s constitution, reportedly pressing for seven amendments. In October fuel trucks from India stopped entering Nepal, which Nepalis are united in calling a deliberate blockade (the Indian external affairs ministry has rejected that claim), the result of which led to fuel shortages and rationing across Nepal. By the end of October, Nepal had turned to China to supply fuel.
The Indian government has come under criticism for “losing Nepal.” As of the first week in November, relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi were tense, and an Indian citizen was killed by Nepali police fire. And in an unprecedented move—India generally does not make extensive public criticism of other countries—India critiqued Nepal’s human rights record on November 4 in the UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review of Nepal.
Bangladesh: New Delhi’s ties with Dhaka have strengthened over the past year and a half, most especially with the historic completion of the Indo-Bangladesh land boundary agreement. The previous Congress-led government in India had tried to regularize the border, but parliamentary objections from the then-opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (not to mention protest from the state government of West Bengal) thwarted legislation. Thankfully, once in power the BJP government chose to advance this bill. Tens of thousands of citizens are now able to live in regularized territory, not “enclaves” surrounded extraterritorially, and Dhaka and New Delhi have moved ahead on transshipment ties—including a new cross-border trucking agreement for cargo in specific “corridors.”
But internal political upheaval and terrorism attacks in Dhaka could slow down this positive progress due to concerns about safety in Bangladesh. Assassinations of secular bloggers back in the spring first made international headlines. At the end of September and early October alarming assassinations of two foreigners took place in quick succession—the first, of an Italian aid worker, and the second, a Japanese farmer working on agriculture in Bangladesh. A bomb tore through a Shi’a procession in Dhaka on October 24. The self-proclaimed Islamic State took responsibility for these killings, but the Bangladeshi government has rejected this idea, and stated instead that the violence must be the work of domestic opposition. Hacking attacks on Bangladeshi publishers last weekend have further added to the climate of concern. To what extent these terrorist attacks will affect commerce is not yet clear, but they cannot be helpful. Bangladesh’s own domestic security challenges now top headline news rather than reports of economic progress.
Maldives: An archipelago nation with only around 350,000 citizens, the Maldives economy is a small part of South Asia’s regional economic connectivity agenda. But its strategic location in the Indian Ocean sea lanes makes it a crucial partner. Its government has been mired in domestic political problems for years. After a November 2013 election in which former President Mohamed Nasheed led in the first voting round but narrowly lost in a runoff and graciously conceded, the Maldivian government has jailed him, prosecuted him in a kangaroo court trial, and convicted him on absurd charges of terrorism. The political situation in the Maldives has deteriorated further. The former vice president Ahmed Adeeb now stands accused of trying to assassinate the president, resulting in Adeeb’s arrest and later impeachment on November 5. On November 4 Maldives authorities declared a state of emergency for thirty days.
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These are all significant setbacks to a focus on broader regional connectivity and a forward-looking trade agenda. How New Delhi handles the security implications and political landmines in its ties with these countries in the coming months will be a test of Modi’s strategic ambitions for South Asia, as well as an illustration of how a rising India will exercise power in the neighborhood.
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