The new government is approaching its first anniversary very soon. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, after coming to power initiated a series of new policies and reform agendas. For a long time India’s foreign policy was leaning towards the Western markets and focussed on tariff reduction, then India adopted the ‘Look East’ policy and the new government has a growing appetite for knitting ties with neighbours. From the day of ‘swearing in’ till date, several initiatives have been undertaken to boost bilateral relations in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member states . Interestingly, the course of action has largely been diplomacy. One such recent manoeuvre has been the ‘SAARC Yatra’ of the newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

The first phase of this Yatra, began on March 1, 2015 from Bhutan followed by visits to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The remaining member states are likely to be covered in the second phase of this Yatra. Taking forward the discussions that were held during the 18th SAARC Summit in Nepal last year, these visits primarily focused on country-level issues and exploring opportunities for bilateral cooperation that could benefit the region as a whole.

In synthesis, the emphasis has been on fostering greater connectivity, energy cooperation, improved national security and resolving cross-border issues for the South Asian region yet shifting away from ‘one size fits all’ kind of a regional approach. The coverage of these discussions reflect that India adopted a ‘tailor-made’ perspective for the talks.
Each stop in the Yatra was a milestone in India’s role in the SAARC integration process. The Bhutan visit focussed on SAARC Satellites, regional universities and giving further dimension within SAARC by highlighting the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional cooperation as well as the need to strengthen bilateral ties.

During the Bangladesh visit, discussions were held around SAARC, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Teesta deal, which was stalled in 2011 because of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s opposition. A renewed assurance was given in support of the Teesta deal and the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) is also likely to move forward in the coming months. Issues like power generation and distribution, infrastructure development such as road, housing etc. were also discussed with Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali.

Certain initiatives that failed at a regional level, were ditabled at a sub-regional level. For instance the SAARC nations collectively failed to ink any deal on connectivity, including the motor vehicle pact at the last year’s summit in Kathmandu as Pakistan refused to ratify them stating that it was yet to complete its internal processes. Thus, India decided to take forward the sub-regional connectivity arrangements with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to ensure seamless transit of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles among them. Recently, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) explored the scope for power trade and inter-grid connectivity starting with a short-term trade of 220-megawatt power. This four-nation power trading is likely to accelerate the implementation of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation signed in Nepal last year. Currently, there are separate grids connecting India-Bhutan, India-Nepal and India-Bangladesh.

While the discussion with the India’s Eastern side of SAARC focused on infrastructural issues, the discussion on India’s Western side of SAARC focused on clearing the air. The highlight of the tour was the visit to Pakistan, seven months after India cancelled the Foreign Secretary level talks post the Pakistan High Commissioner held discussions with Kashmiri separatists. The Pakistan visit was more focused towards resuming discussion and setting a roadmap for further talks with a focus on normalisation of trade and creation of travel linkages. An undertone discussion on security issues like ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Boundary were obvious and customary to the Pakistan visit.

The last stop being Afghanistan was well positioned as a conclusion to the first phase of the SAARC Yatra. Development, connectivity as well as security concerns and talks with the Taliban were top on the list of priorities with the country. It is clear that security issues in Afghanistan are of crucial importance to India as well as in maintaining stability in the South Asian region. Amidst the issues of strategic importance, crucial economic issues such as cooperation in setting up water pipelines were also discussed.

At the outset, the SAARC Yatra has sent out the right vibes both in the region and across the world. It reflects India’s positive efforts to strengthen the South Asian bloc. Regional trade and economic cooperation in South Asia remains lowest in the world despite signing of many treaties and agreements largely due to the political complexities in the region. Neighbourhood diplomacy is a step in the right direction to atleast narrow down the gaps, if not close them. Past efforts at a regional level have failed due to bilateral issues and therefore, such ‘confidence building measures’ are likely to revive future discussions. If strategic issues are set separately, regional agreements can be more focused towards economic issues. Parallel to this, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka highlighted India’s intent on strengthening their ties in the Indian Ocean region making it clear that India is on a mission to reaffirm the importance of regional integration that is essential for growth and stability in the South Asian region.

Sabah Ishtiaq
Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi