India’s President Pranab Mukherjee isn’t in New Delhi today. Instead, he is east of the Siliguri Corridor, in Arunachal Pradesh — one of India’s most remote and underdeveloped states. It’s also the site of a major border dispute with China, which claims almost the entirety of the state as Chinese territory. The president addressed local politicians in the legislative assembly in Itanagar, the administrative capital of Arunachal Pradesh.
On this visit, Mukherjee outlined the obvious: “Since Arunachal Pradesh has common borders with three countries, the development of border areas is also vital and must receive our utmost attention,” he said. Times of India further reported that Mukherjee acknowledged Arunachal’s pivotal role as a major nexus in India’s “Look East” policy. “The northeast of India provides a natural bridge between us and South East Asia. The essential philosophy of our ‘Look East Policy’ is that India must find its destiny by linking itself more and more with its Asian partners and the rest of the world,” he added.
Mukherjee’s declamation in Arunachal was astute in its focus on infrastructure and development as well. He noted the urgency with which New Delhi and the northeastern periphery needed to propel infrastructure projects to the top of the development agenda. It is perhaps no surprise that he made this statement so forcefully a few weeks after China completed a major highway in Medog, just across the disputed border in Tibet.
However, despite expending presidential energy and getting Mukherjee to Arunachal Pradesh to offer these sorts of assurances, New Delhi needs to deliver on its promises. A jaded skeptic could look at Mukherjee’s latest trip as an attempt to lend lip service to development promises in the northeast ahead of next year’s elections, potentially boosting the ruling Congress-led UPA’s electoral outcomes. Arunachal Pradesh’s physical, political, and cultural isolation have been somewhat of a constant throughout independent India’s history and can only be addressed with a concerted and sincere effort from New Delhi.
Domestic political concerns aside, Mukherjee’s visit does accomplish an important function on the foreign policy front — as did former President Pratibha Patil’s visit and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state a few years ago. These periodic high-level visits almost universally draw condemnation from China, and serve as an important symbolic assertion of New Delhi’s sovereignty over the state. Former President Patil’s visit to Arunachal also included a visit to the war memorial for Indian soldiers who died fighting Chinese troops in the 1962 war, prompting a formal diplomatic complaint from Beijing.
One hopes that this latest visit from New Delhi will drive home the idea that maintaining sovereignty in the northeast necessitates political attention from the center on a permanent basis. The UPA government has tried to this in the form of major grants and even by launching the construction of a highway across the state (mirroring Chinese infrastructure efforts on the other side of the border). Pranab Mukherjee’s visit is important symbolically and functionally, in the sense of invigorating the implementation of New Delhi’s ambitious plans for Arunachal.