Just few months backin November 2014at the East Asia Summit in Myanmarese capital Nay Pyi Ta, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that his government seeks to turn the Look East Policy (LEP) into a proactive ‘Act East’ policy. Recent events along the Indo-Myanmarese border and its aftermath has however cast this vow of ‘acting East’ under a considerable pall of apprehensions.
The LEP inaugurated in the post-liberalisation era of 1991 reflected in the core “a strategic shift in India's vision of the world and India's place in the evolving global economy” but also equally importantly a commitment and vision to make India’s northeast region a “trading and commercial hub of Southeast Asia”. It is the understanding and pursuance of this second half of the vision that is often found wanting.
Northeast, the theatre stage of ‘the new great game of the East’?
Myanmar shares a 1600 km border with India including a maritime border in the Bay of Bengal. It is the gateway to ASEAN and lies at the intersection of India and China’s clashing interests for achieving regional dominance.India is stepping up its momentum to improve economic ties with Myanmar and the trade between the two nations has gone up from 12 million in 80’s to 2 billion. Key investment areasof investment being telecom, energy and Aviation sectors.
However, unlike the Western frontier, Myanmar has arrived relatively later in the scene for Indian foreign policy, significantly because it happens to border a region like the NE that itself has been feeling the brunt of apathy and neglect in policy formulations. The potentials of Myanmar has never been fully explored because it was seen as the remote of the remote.
Now, the era of the New Great Game played out in Central Asia between China and India.has been changing all these. Globalisation has not replaced regionalism, nor has geoeconomics replaced geopolitics. Political scientist like David Scott points out three fields involved in the discourse of this New Great Game: military-security, economic and diplomatic. Placed in this context, one sees the need for a judicious balance of these three as a must for the pragmatic execution of the LEP. Myanmar has finally found the attention it always deserved. As Myanmar is where Indian meets China.
The repercussions of the June operation yet to be seen :
When the Indian army purportedly moved well into the Myanmarese territory on June 10th to ‘retaliate’ and attack a host of camps belonging to insurgent outfits from the NE India, it was an unprecedented act, but perhaps not entirely surprising. Cross border insurgency has been listed as one of the roadblocks for the LEP and India and Myanmar has in fact signed an MoU on this back in 2010. What should be worrying one more than the action are the manner and the intent of it. The point is not that yet again, the citizens (including the state governments) are left in the dark about the states way of making war and peace. What feels disturbing is the manner the Government turned it into a well executed PR coup trumpeting the ‘iron will’ of the new government that does not shy away from decisive action. In the whirlwind of much chest thumping that followed little room was left to ascertain the real extent of the claims made, leave alone the larger ramifications of something so unprecedented. Brazen official announcements and a sense of euphoric heroism created by the media has put the Myanmar establishment at an evident unease. It is yet to early to see the domestic and foreign policy repercussions of this sensitive disclosure on Myanmar.
On the other hand, the complete absence of the local voices/narratives in the whole affair should be worrying us too. Both the Manipur and Nagaland state governments have been completely in the dark about the operations, even the Manipur Chief Minister reporting to have heard about the operations only from media reports from Delhi.
Turning the frontiers into headquarters
Several measures have been undertaken under the aegis of the Look East policy to uplift North East India such as the ‘Asian Highway’, ‘Asian Railway link’ and ‘Natural Gas pipeline’. The Tokyo Declaration for India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership made in Tokyo on 1 September 2014 has brought Japaninto the heart of India’s Look East Policy. Thus signalling another move in the great game of the East.
But are we ready for it? There needs to be a sincere efforts to develop and involve the region before one pushes further east, else the Northeast will remain just a corridor or perhaps a super highway at best. People of the NER has to be made active stakeholders of any growth plans initiated by the LEP. Modi Government with a strong mandate has that opportunity to take the state government’s into confidence. It all can be lost if the return of the one party dominance system into Indian politics means a shrinking space for greater federal decentralisation. The government has to rise up to the occasion and the party needs to be reigned in.
One hopes that the often extolled parallels between Yunan in China and the Northeast India will stop at their role as connecting dots of the Ledo-Stilwell road (these two regions after all being connected through the ancient silk route once). One does not seek a Yunanisation of the NER as mute spectator,storehousedisplaying ‘exotic ethnic diversities and uniqueness’, the ‘ethnic others’ of their respective government’s grandiose designs. As insignificant pawns in international power games.
The NER has been for long been looked as ‘frontier’ a la the colonial lenses, and now through the terms of the changing new games of the East. The LEP if it has to ‘act East’ as a real game changer for the NER has to bring the region into centre stage of the discourse, as the headquarter of activities and not the margins anymore. But is the centre ready and willing for it?
(Dr. Kaustubh Deka teaches Political Science at the Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University and is a former fellow with the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai)