On November 29, India’s prime minister touched down for his first official visit to India’s Northeast region*. As Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest, Narendra Modi’s visit to the region helped further flesh out his strategy for reorienting India’s foreign policy towards stronger ties with Southeast and East Asia. His initiatives seek to make good on Delhi’s oft-repeated pledges to better integrate Northeast India with the rest of India and with its international neighbors. But to carry out his vision, he’ll have to navigate a complex array of interests in the region, some of which, for a variety of reasons, are none too pleased with the plans Modi has set forth thus far.
At the time of Indian independence, the undivided state of Assam – then comprising five of the present-day Northeast’s seven states – had a per capita GDP 4 percent above India’s national average. In 2010–11, the nominal per capita GDP of these seven states combined trailed the all-India average (Rs59,143) by 30 percent. Northeast India enjoys a mostly above-average standing on social indicators like literacy rates and infant mortality. But it lags on infrastructure development metrics such as electricity consumption per capita and road density, and, though official poverty measurements describe poverty levels in most of the region’s states as trailing the all-India average, the Indian government says that the Northeast’s figures in this regard are significantly overstated.
The Northeast’s development struggles have been attributed to a dizzying array of factors: long-running insurgencies, disinterested governance from Delhi, endemic corruption, and tensions among the region’s more than 200 ethnicities. The Northeast’s geographic isolation is an undoubted contributor. The quirks of the India-Bangladesh partition in 1947 left the region connected to the rest of India by a corridor just 27 km wide. Its international borders, in contrast, stretch more than 5000 kilometers. Internally, low road density is exacerbated by the shoddy quality of existing roads, while railway services only reach three stations in the entire region.
Modi’s 2014–15 national budget earmarked Rs537 billion ($8.6 billion) for infrastructure and telecommunications projects in the Northeast. His visit – which took in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura – saw him present details on the substance of his plans, most notably Rs280 billion for new rail lines. Reactions in the Northeast were mixed. Some Nagaland observers were disappointed at the absence of a budget deficit relief package on par with what Atal Bihari Vajpayee had announced for the state during his visit as prime minister in 2003. Meghalaya-based editor and Central government advisor Patricia Mukhim questioned Modi and his cabinet for eschewing her state in favor of visits to target vote blocks in Assam. Many in Manipur were surprised that Modi did not announce a policy relaxation regarding the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which governs the Indian military’s deep presence in the region. The Assam Tribune, the Northeast’s largest English-language daily, criticized Modi for his “lack of substance” and “failure to deal with specifics” on regional hydropower controversies and ongoing Assamese insurgent movements.
Of course, there’s nothing especially new about dissent within the Northeast over Central policy in the region. Disappointment with Delhi is ever present in Northeastern politics, and the region’s isolation and limited parliamentary representation (West Bengal alone has 18 more MPs than the Northeast) ensures that such attitudes receive regrettably little play outside of the region. But Delhi-Northeast splits over Modi’s plans for international connectivity in the region touch upon larger questions, about the prospects of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and about the emerging geopolitics of Asia.
For the past thirty years, Indian foreign policymakers have made fitful attempts to strengthen ties with the country’s eastern neighbors as part of the country’s Look East Policy (LEP). Since the early 2000s, developing the Northeast has been incorporated as a component of the LEP agenda. The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region’s North Eastern Region Vision 2020, a landmark policy planning document released in 2008, argued that “making the Look East Policy meaningful” for the region would require access to ASEAN, by sea routes out of Bangladesh and “land routes through Myanmar and China.”
Modi has thus far advanced his plans for the Northeast in terms of tighter relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar. During his stop in Tripura on December 1, he spoke of an “economic corridor” that “would be established using northeast India, Myanmar, and the adjoining regions. Northeast India would be a gateway of Southeast Asia in future and the government has signed an agreement with Japan to open an economic corridor with Myanmar.” MDONER Minister V.K. Singh said in August that a key existing pair of transit initiatives between Northeast India and Myanmar – the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway – are on track to be completed by 2016. With Bangladesh, Modi is rallying domestic support in order to ensure ratification of a 2011 treaty supported by Bangladesh that promises to resolve the two countries’ long-running border dispute.
Meanwhile, Prabir De, coordinator of the ASEAN-India Centre at the government-sponsored Research and Information System for Developing Countries think-tank in Delhi, said at a recent forum in Kolkata that, since Modi’s arrival, there has been “a renewed interest” by the Indian government in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral and Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC). BIMSTEC is a regional integration forum comprised of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal. Its impact thus far has been limited to a handful of deals on energy cooperation and a 2004 free-trade framework agreement. Former Indian ambassador to Thailand and BIMSTEC proponent Ranajit Gupta has attributed BIMSTEC’s slow progress to a lack of interest in India; a more engaged India would no doubt prove a useful fillip to bolstering the forum.
Modi’s initiatives in this regard square well with the demands of Northeastern states like Mizoram and Tripura. Tripura has been particularly active in this regard. Chief Minister Mainak Sarkar has pressed Modi aggressively on securing access for Northeastern India to Bangladesh’s Chittagong seaport and Ashuganj river port and has served as a useful advocate for Bangladesh on power-sharing measures that Modi approved during his visit. But Modi’s stance on the land border agreement has already sparked protests in Assam, where anti-Bangladesh sentiment plays a powerful role in local politics. The BJP’s inroads in the Northeast during the 2014 elections followed in large part from its hardline rhetoric in this state, which provides the party with seven of its eight Northeastern MPs. The party had opposed the agreement back in 2011. While the party has now managed to rally its cadres in support of the deal, the about-face could prove very troublesome for the BJP in Assam’s 2016 assembly elections, when it attempts to consolidate its gains in the state.
Less electorally threatening, but perhaps more geopolitically significant, is the new government’s approach towards boosting the Northeast’s links with Asia’s most powerful economy, China. Indian policy on this question has long been shaped by anxieties over Chinese influence. China claims the 90,000 square kilometer Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh along the Tibet border and has long sheltered and supported Northeastern insurgent movements. Indian military figures have warned that stronger connectivity in the region will only deepen the threat posed by a Chinese invasion, while commerce officials worry that deeper integration will lead to Chinese goods overwhelming Indian goods in the region. (Not that they aren’t already.) Under Modi’s watch, Xi Jinping’s September visit to India brought $20 billion in Chinese investment; that was a marked increase over the cumulative $400 million invested in the past 14 years, but all of it was earmarked for Gujarat and Maharashtra.
“We do not have any problem with investment in Gujarat, but why not Assam? We should also get a share of China’s investment in India” said Assam’s Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi after Xi’s visit. But Modi has preferred to build upon the invitations extended by the previous Indian government to Japan as an infrastructure development partner in the Northeast. Modi’s visit to Japan in September affirmed his commitment to joint projects for the region in a variety of sectors.
The new government’s stance on integration with China may also shape its attitude towards the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM-EC). The project, first proposed in 1998 by the government of Yunnan Province in southwest China, seeks to boost trade and investment between the four countries. The project is a favorite of the Chinese, who see it as a way to integrate Asia’s second-largest economy into their New Silk Road strategy. In Northeast India, subsets of the business community are none too keen on exposing themselves even further to Chinese competition. But a recent survey by the Assam-based Center for Environmental, Social, and Policy Research indicates broad enthusiasm for the corridor among Northeastern politicians, journalists, officials, and academics.
The BCIM-EC received a boost in December 2013 when the four nations held their first official talks on the project and agreed to establish national-level study groups to file reports on moving forward. But a number of specialists who spoke with The Diplomat suggest that Modi’s government has serious reservations about matching China’s commitment to the corridor. (It is notable in this context that BIMSTEC excludes China, and Pakistan.) Northeasterners, for their part, protest that their visions of international connectivity enjoy little play in Delhi. But at the Kolkata-to-Kunming Forum this November, an annual Track-II initiative promoting China-India integration, Indian Consul-General in Guangzhou K. Nagaraj Naidu called out the Northeastern states for failing to press their claims effectively. Northeast India “needs to take ownership of improving connectivity”; right now, he said, the seven states “lack a concerted strategy for how to engage with China.”
The Indian government’s views on the BCIM-EC should become clearer over the next two months. India’s study group will release its report, and representatives of the four governments will meet for a second time in Bangladesh at Cox’s Bazar. And a less enthusiastic Indian government may not mean a wholly oppositional Indian government.
But if New Delhi does remain wary over deepening integration with China – if Modi continues to prefer a Japan-fueled “economic corridor” between “Northeast India, Myanmar, and the adjoining regions” – it is difficult to see what forces in the short-term could make it reconsider. The land border agreement with Bangladesh has provoked protests in Assam; Gogoi’s comments aside, no such movement exists in the Northeast over ties with China. Meanwhile, Modi is courting the U.S. by inviting President Barack Obama to be his chief guest for the January 26 Republic Day celebrations. This honor is traditionally granted to the heads of state for India’s closest allies. It is the first time an American president has been invited; last year’s invitation went to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Many commentators are linking the gesture with Indian concerns over China’s growing clout in Asia. On top of all this is the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh. Bard College professor and Northeast India scholar Sanjib Baruah put it thusly to The Diplomat: “How does one have regional economic integration when a part of that trans-border region is disputed territory?” Northeastern backers of closer economic ties with China may have to wait longer than they would like to see their vision achieved.
Edmund Downie is a Yale University Gordon Grand Fellow at the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development, studying Indian regional integration with East and Southeast Asia.
*Corrected from the original, which suggested it was the first official visit to the Northeast by an Indian prime minister since 2003. It was not.