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Challenge Before Modi: Regional Interests Or National Interests

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first move of inviting the eight heads of state of neighbouring SAARC countries was surprising and bold. Surprising it was because this is the first time SAARC, which has hitherto been given low priority by India, has come on top of the agenda of the new prime minister. Bold because he has invited Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan with whom India has warred thrice after Independence and with high tension still straining relations between the two countries.

At the first glance it appears to be a gesture of goodwill to all its neighbours with whom India has not been quite popular. In it is also wrapped a neat Indian ‘Doosra’ which has caught Nawaz Sharif in a dilemma.

If Sharif accepts the invitation, he provokes the ire of the Pakistan right, especially the army and the powerful Intelligence Services Agency (ISI) that views India with much animosity. If he does not, he will appear to the outside world as rebuffing an open and friendly gesture of Narendra Modi who has been considered to be deeply hostile and antagonistic to Pakistan. Thus Sharif is placed in a position of being damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Of course, Sharif has bowled such a ‘Doosra’ before to India. When he was elected to office, the last time, he invited Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan at which time Indo- Pak tempers were simmering. Singh declined the invitation.

Some analysts have pointed out that Modi’s invitation should not be considered in the context of Pakistan. It was an invitation extended at all eight countries of SAARC for a ceremonial occasion.

The Indian Prime Minister will obviously not have time for serious negotiations with any of the heads of state during the time of these visits. But their visits will set the tone not only for development of SAARC and pursuit of its objectives but also bilateral trade between those countries and India. Most SAARC countries have political, economic problems to iron out with their giant neighbour. Some are extremely crucial issues that can result in burgeoning problems if they drag on.

India being the giant in the centre of the seven dwarfs surrounding it has a key role to play in the South Asian region. It will determine its future to a very large extent if it does involve itself in economic development and political developments in the region. But India did not exhibit firm policies to deal with individual countries nor did it seem to have a common policy applicable to the whole region.

The prime thrust of India’s foreign policy since Independence is said to be giving priority to its neighbourhood. But given its geopolitical ambitions of achieving Big Power status, priority towards the neighbourhood has taken a back seat. The only Indian Prime Minister who correctly defined what India’s role in the region should be was Inder Kumar Gujral. His policy on South Asia came to be dubbed the Gujral Doctrine: India has to do more for its neighbours than what the neighbours can do for India.

Narendra Modi, according to most expectations, will push towards a powerful industrialised India to be on the world stage. Whether he would attempt to do so while helping India’s poor and weak neighbours is to be seen.

Modi’s challenge in Sri Lanka is the challenge almost all Indian leaders had to meet:  the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. India’s Foreign Ministry most likely will urge him to follow what they had been pushing for in recent years: implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution.

The Rajapaksa government has not been too enthusiastic in implementing the amendment in its entirety. Great pressure will be brought on Modi by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyaram Jayalalitha to crack down on Sri Lanka severely. She has gained tremendous political mileage castigating Sri Lanka since the defeat of the LTTE and has the millions of Tamil Nadu behind her.

While Modi will be pressurized by her to strangle Sri Lanka into submission, he will stand exposed to the world as an extremely powerful leader of the biggest democracy, who succumbed and let the tail wag the dog or go on record as an Indian leader who did not let regional interests prevail over the national interests of India.

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