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25 November, 2015 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 25 November, 2015 11:12:38 AM
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Narendra Modiís Pakistan Sojourn

Kumkum Chadha
Narendra Modiís Pakistan Sojourn

When Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister dialed his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in Pakistan following the earthquake recently, he was, apart from extending help following the devastation, also building bridges. Of course his outreach was not to Pakistan alone but also to Afghanistan that had been jolted by a powerful earthquake. Modi reportedly spoke to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. The strong earthquake, measuring 7.5 on the richter scale, had caused devastation and shook structures from Kabul to Delhi and killed a large number of people. Tremors were also felt in parts of northern India.  To both countries, Modi offered India’s assistance. About Pakistan he tweeted: “Spoke to PM Nawaz Sharif & expressed condolences on the loss of lives due to the quake. Offered all possible assistance from India,” Modi tweeted. “Expressed my gratitude to PM Nawaz Sharif for his efforts that ensured Geeta returned home,” Modi said in another tweet. Pakistan had earlier made possible the return of Geeta, a deaf and mute Indian girl, who had strayed over the Pakistan border some ten years ago.
If Geeta’s return opened communication channels between India and Pakistan, after a series of tensions, then Modi’s call, post- earthquake, was another attempt to thaw the chill between the two countries.  Modi’s reaching out to Pakistan was seen as a move fraught with possibilities of a dialogue that had snapped in the past. Cross border firing had hardened India’s stance as had Sharif’s criticism of India on international platforms like the United Nations. The two countries had, in one sense, reached a dead end.
But Modi dialing Sharif can change things in the near future. That India and Pakistan should get on and remain on talking terms is, apart from benefitting bi-lateral relations, crucial to the entire region. Therefore any move in this direction  is not only desirable but also more than welcome.  While fingers could be pointed towards Pakistan for doing the opposite of what is expected or promised, India, led by Prime Minister Modi, has kept to the neighbors’ first agenda.
In this context, the first step Modi took even before assuming office was significant. He  not only made it a point to invite SAARC heads of state to his swearing in but ensured that his first official engagement were bi-lateral dialogues with each of the visiting heads of State. This was enough to signal to the world that under Modi, India’s immediate neighbours will get precedence.
It is in this spirit that Modi started his foreign tours not with the affluent west but from among its neighbourhood. He started with Bhutan and in less than a year of his rule, visited Nepal and Myanmar.  Therefore when India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that India will pursue a policy of acting elder brother rather than big brother, she was articulating a sentiment that was less rhetoric and more intention.
While it is true that Modi took almost a year to visit Bangladesh, it was not because Bangladesh was low on priority but because Modi wanted to go with his “hands full”. He had made it known to his Government and backroom boys and girls that he would deliver rather than echo empty promises. Therefore when he went to Bangladesh he took with him the long awaited gift of the  Land Boundary Agreement for its people and more particularly for the government headed by Sheikh Hasina. With a single stroke he erased the frustration of the Bangladeshi people who till then saw India short on delivery.
With the LBA’s happy ending, Modi also renewed hopes for delivery on another front: the sharing of Teesta waters. Given his speed on ensuring that the LBA be implemented sooner than later, the Teesta waters is not moving at the pace it should but then Modi’s anxiety on delivery this time around is not as acute as it was on the LBA. This is not because he gave more importance to it than he does to the waters but because LBA was comparatively easy to deliver. Teesta’s spanner in the works is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who, while she has mellowed in her opposition to the sharing of waters, is demanding her pound of flesh, as it were.
That notwithstanding, the fact remains that delivery on Teesta is slow and does not seem to show any signs of moving at the pace Bangladesh would like to see it progress. Whether that is because of Modi being reticent or Bangladesh not hammering India as it did in the past, remains debatable.  
Add to that the fact that Modi is battling controversies surrounding his rule beginning from charges of intolerance, polarization to communal politics. Against this backdrop, it is logical that he lets sleeping dogs lie rather than rake up sensitive issues like sharing of waters. Also, his position is not as formidable as it was when he delivered the LBA to Bangladesh. Then he was in one sense unassailable. Much water has flown between bridges since then. Modi’s persona is not what it was. Neither is the country’s euphoria over him at its peak. There has been a downslide and Modi has to tread with caution. The intolerance charge has stuck.
Ironically, Sheikh Hasina’s government is also going through a similar phase. Religious intolerance has gripped Bangladesh. The country has been on the brink with bloggers, publishers and activists on the radar.  There is reportedly a free speech crisis: similar to the charges the Modi government is facing in India.
Therefore both Hasina and Modi have a lot to handle back home. In any case Modi, through the LBA, has restored India’s credibility with Bangladesh and helped Sheikh Hasina prove to her people that India’s promises are not empty rhetoric. Therefore, for the moment, both leaders can breathe easy.  
The same however cannot be said about India’s current relationship with Nepal. It, in one sense, launched an offensive against the Himalayan kingdom when it slammed it before the United Nations Human Rights Council.
This India did for the first time while taking stock of ethnic discrimination and extra judicial killings in Nepal.
That notwithstanding,  India’s foreign policy has undergone positive changes under Modi. For one, it is proactive, imaginative and action oriented. Given that Modi is leading from the front and nation-hopping tirelessly, the message is clear: foreign policy like economic growth is vital to his Government.
This is substantiated by the fact that every  important negotiation is handled by the Prime Minister himself. This is contrary to past practice of Foreign Ministers being solely in charge.
In the context of its  immediate neighbours, India’s “neighbourhood first” policy has helped forge links and hammered on the importance of the region as a whole and its role on the world stage. Under Modi, India and her neighbours are partners in progress: underlining the we-quotient rather than a them and us.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and a columnist of The Independent

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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