Nepal Foreign Affairs (KATHMANDU, 16 June) – Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s speech against expansionism in Bangladesh stands in sharp contrast to his recent actions which can be fittingly called expansionist.
As elsewhere during the international sojourn in the first year in office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stole the limelight in his recent Bangladesh visit too. He roared in confidence when he delivered speeches, he expressed compassion and solidarity with the Bangladeshi nationalism and won hearts of 170 million Bangladeshi people, especially its youth.
While celebrating several themes of India-Bangladesh bilateral ties, which was the core objective of the visit, Modi also laid substance to the subjects relevant to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Among them, his punchline against “Expansionism”, though given less prominence by the media all over the region, is highly significant to assuage the concerns of India’s smaller and less affluent neighbors, particularly Nepal and Bangladesh.
Leaders and civil societies in the SAARC region unanimously agree that the effectiveness of SAARC has always been at the level of a non-entity. The position of the Secretary General, rotated alphabetically among the member nations in every three years, has been an instrument to extend employment of the member countries’ retired foreign affairs bureaucrats. The thematic committees and regional centers are useless as seen during Nepal earthquake where the World Food Program was distributing rotten rice to the poors of Nepal but the SAARC food bank was slumbering deep without use. All assistance to Nepal from the region came bilaterally, with India, Bangladesh and Bhutan being the largest providers of support.
India as the regional leader, lovingly called the ‘Regional Actor” by Western diplomatic lynchpins, was long overdue to make the kind statement as Modi made against expansionism. He eventually growled in his usual baritone, hissing at the end of every sentence that befits his masterly Hindi, “India is a country which has never attacked any country for land…while the world is fighting for land, we are using land as a bridge to developing relations…what we need today is developmentalism, not expansionism.”
Put under even a light scrutiny, however, the divide between Speech Modi and Action Modi easily comes to the surface in the question of expansionism. He conveniently chose to forget in Bangladesh the most recent expansionist agreement between Himself and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Lipulekh, a huge chunk of land in the Northwestern point of Nepal, bordering India and China, where Nepal’s King Mahendra in 1962 had allowed, on the personal implore of the Prime Minister of India to house an Indian Military installation. That was the time when India had suffered a huge loss against the war with China. And that was the time when India was looking for strategic points to bolster its military presence to contain future Chinese advances. Lipulekh was important to India for two extremely crucial reasons: first, it belonged to Nepal and given the cordial relations with Nepal, China would not directly attack the base; and second, the place provided easiest route to China in case of any future wars.
It was meant to be temporary. But once India established its military camp there, it started claiming the land itself. Now, under Modi’s watch, India and China, without Nepal’s knowledge, agreed to build highway via Lipulekh. This historical amnesia stands in sharp contrast to what Modi has said deploring expansionism in Bangladesh.
Then comes Myanmar. In the excuse of wiping out northeastern terror bases operating from the Burmese land, Modi instructed covert military operations in the northwestern Myanmar, which has raised hackles in the region again whether India can really become a responsible power.
India repeatedly makes mistakes in the region while engaging with the certain marginal forces. Its alliance in the 1980s gave Sri Lankan Tamils legitimacy to develop into the separatist terror group. A policy rectification came much later, at a very high cost, with the assassination of its Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It has of late correctly distanced itself from Nepal’s chauvinist regional Mdhesi forces whose existence depends on the bending and twisting of the history. These forces were otherwise organized at the behest of India in the ruse of containing “Maoist extremism in Nepal”.
Modi started positively a year ago. He has made right noises and given inspiring statements for the collective progress of South Asia and neighborhood. His initiative of the sub-regional motor vehicles connectivity amongst four closest allies of South Asia-Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India-is highly commendable. But he needs to present a uniform Modi, who practices what he preaches.