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India's Northeast a critical fulcrum in Act East policy

The government has not only positioned the Northeast as the gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond but, through multi-pronged efforts of a sustained engagement, developing physical connectivity and encouraging greater investment flows, given rise to a distinct upbeat thinking in and about the region, writes Sreeradha Datta for South Asia Monitor

Jan 7, 2018
By Sreeradha Datta
 
For most part of the past seven decades India’s Northeast region has drawn attention for security related concerns and remained peripheral to the  development pattern that rest of India had embarked upon.
 
The reasons were many, stemming from both the generic problems within the region, and also largely due to the domination of the security prism through which mainland India viewed the eight northeastern states  - Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura - given their long borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Bhutan.
 
The challenge of the geography, perpetuated by the stereotyped politico-strategic narrative, allowed the insular and isolated status of the region to continue. Isolated and inaccessible, with limited transport and communication facilities, the per capita index and overall development trend fell much below the national average. Despite all that, the northeastern states - known generically as simply the Northeast - have recorded better human development index indicators in matters of electricity and toilet coverage, literacy, sanitation and gender rights than several of the mainland states. Is it possible to suggest that the process of a turnaround has been initiated?
 
It was only in the early 1990s that the ‘Look East’ policy of the Indian government for the first time introduced the perspective of development and growth for the Northeast.  Unfortunately, while the erstwhile ‘Look East’ policy opened up significant bilateral cooperation with Southeast Asia and the ASEAN regional group, the Northeast did not feature much in this initiative beyond the rhetoric.
 
Ironically, this actually led to a flurry of studies being undertaken, contributing to the greater understanding of the potential that the region offered. It was only with the coining of the 'Act East' policy by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi - led government that the perspective about this region has undergone some changes.
 
The government has not only positioned the Northeast as the gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond but, through multi-pronged efforts of a sustained engagement, developing physical connectivity and encouraging greater investment flows, has given rise to a distinct upbeat thinking about and in the region.
 
There are several reasons for this: first, the security establishment in India had for long dominated the policy perspective for this region and there was no political will to change the course. Several developments in the neighbourhood finally led to recognition of the hollowness of the policy of keeping the region insulated - and infrastructurally deficient - to safeguard it and the rest of the country from deeper incursions by an aggressive China. .
 
There is appreciation of the fact that while the India-China border dispute is not going to be resolved soon, physical connectivity and upgradation of defence infrastructure in the border region is a vital component for India’s preparedness against any aggression. India, continuing to struggle with the spectre of the threat emanating from China, belatedly understood the criticality of improving its border zones and commissioned a large number of highways and other infrastructure development plans in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. Construction of the four-lane highway between Dimapur and Kohima - travelling on it earlier constituted a driving nightmare - was a reflection of that political will.
 
Secondly, the thrust on border and infrastructure development was necessary to implement the sub regionalism that was necessitated in the sub-continent in the wake of ineffective SAARC regionalism. India wishing to increase its influence in the region would be ineffectual without being able to carry its neighbours with it.
 
With the exception of Bangladesh, much of the bilateral ‘Neighbours First’ policy has lost much of its sheen; As it stands now, Nepal is yet to signal its forgiveness for the blockage of the borders, engagements with Sri Lanka have been business as usual without any significant high moments, while Bhutan, a most valued partner, cannot any more be taken for granted.
 
In the absence of significant bilateral partnerships the sub-regional initiative seemed a preferred alternative to engage with the neighbours. Although the motor vehicle agreement (BBIN MVA) amongst the four members - Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India - has encountered problems because of Bhutan’s environmental concerns, India is hoping the BIMSTEC regional grouping will provide an alternative for the states to collectively move ahead on infrastructure and trade and investments. Also, befriending states in the neighbourhood has been found invaluable in the face of the strong partnerships that China had already built in and around India’s neighbourhood.
 
Thirdly, the present government is keen to implement its political intent in the northeastern states. Having formed governments in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to consolidate its hold over the other five states. Winning the assembly elections in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, scheduled around April 2018, is considered critical in implementing some of its national and foreign policy promises.
 
Ensuring the Nagaland peace talks and moving towards a comprehensive agreement seems critical to the BJPs plan for the region. It appears an opportune moment to co-opt the various Naga factions that remain outside the peace talks. With general elections in India scheduled for 2019, the conclusion of the decades-long peace talks with the Naga insurgents groups is bound to yield rich dividends for the government.  
 
(The author is a strategic analyst with expertise on India's eastern neighbours and Northeast. She can be contacted at sreeradha@yahoo.com)

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