The Guwahati Initiative:

Northeast as the Centre of Regional Universe

19 Jun, 2013    ·   4000

D. Suba Chandran posits a model to reorient India’s Lookeast Policy with the Northeast as its focal point

In the last few years, there have been efforts to reorient India’s Lookeast Policy, at the foreign policy level, primarily by the PMO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Delhi. Simultaneously, there have also been multiple efforts by the PMO and Ministry of Home Affairs to improve the situation in India’s Northeast, at the political, economic, and security levels.

Can the above two efforts - at the foreign policy and internal security levels, be merged into a single initiative? Can the Northeast be perceived as the centre of a regional universe involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, and even parts of China, especially the border provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan?

True, there have already been efforts on integrating India’s Northeast with New Delhi’s Lookeast Policy, and sub-regional initiatives such as the BCIM, with the same objectives. However, these initiatives have not achieved the expected results, for various reasons - including the differences between New Delhi’s rhetoric and reality, differences between the various ministries, the security situation in the Northeast, and the regional political environment in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Besides the above, one of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the lack of sufficient interest and inputs from the Northeast. Integrating the Northeast with India’s Lookeast has primarily been a foreign policy initiative from South Block and the PMO in New Delhi, rather than a comprehensive road map with adequate stakeholders from the Northeast, especially its State governments. In this context, perhaps, the Kunming Initiative could be a model. To supplement and support New Delhi’s efforts to integrate the Northeast with its Lookeast policy, there should be a regional initiative, comprising the states and civil society actors, highlighting their interests and needs, and pushing their agenda in New Delhi.

Can there be a “Guwahati Initiative”, expressing the interests, needs, inputs, strengths, potentials, reservations, and weaknesses of the region in converting the Northeast as the centre of the regional universe?

Such a regional initiative, with its roots in the Northeast, need not be perceived as an alternative to the efforts already made by New Delhi; this could be perceived, and in fact staunchly encouraged by New Delhi, as a complementary process.

What could be the components of a Guwahati Initiative? First of all, it should emerge from the Northeast. There are multiple government institutions in the Northeast, besides the State governments, including the North Eastern Council (NEC) with its headquarters in Shillong, under the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DONER). At the academic and commercial levels, there are multiple institutions - ranging from State Universities, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), and numerous business chambers at the regional level. Despite the presence of these institutions at the State, academic, and commercial levels, there is yet to evolve a strong regional ownership of any initiative that could fill in the above requirement.

Most initiatives such as the DONER and NEC are perceived as driven by New Delhi. Rightly so. Also, in terms of primary ideas and funding, it remains one way traffic (from New Delhi into the Northeast) in practice, though it is supposed to be a partnership in spirit and principles. Issues relating to accountability, corruption, and performance have dented the huge ideals with which these institutions were conceived originally and are being operationalised today. This is why there is a need for a regional initiative, with regional stakeholders and ideas from the ground.

Second, each State in the Northeast, and the region as a whole, may have different expectations and interpretations of how they would like to be perceived as the centre of the regional universe. For example, Manipur and Nagaland may be more interested in dealing with Myanmar, while Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Assam may have a larger interest in dealing with Bangladesh. Similarly, sharing the border with Bhutan, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh may have a bigger stake in interacting with the former.

Third, while New Delhi may think big and look at larger interests, and at times even narrowly perceive the Northeast as a bridge between mainland India and Southeast Asia through its foreign policy prism, the States of the region may perceive at the ground level, using their historical contacts and cultural similarities. Perhaps a football match with Myanmar and Bangladesh, more car rallies across the region, and expansion of border trading huts may be the primary expressions and expectations from the Northeast.

Fourth, and more importantly, the local initiatives perceived and put forward by the region, will ensure the Northeast becomes an engine of growth for itself, rather than catering for the long Indian goods train from Mumbai and Amritsar. The second should be a corollary to the first, and could be achieved, only if the region takes the lead.

Fifth, this should primarily be a political initiative by the region, with substantial economic and cultural components attached to it, rather than the other way around. While there have been multiple proposals from the business communities, they could not move forward, given the lack of support, if not opposition to the same.

Finally, such an initiative has to be led by a State within the region with equal involvement from all the States, thus serving as primus inter pares. Given the political and security situation in the Northeast, expecting every state government to equally participate and push the idea will not be practically viable. Perhaps, Assam could take the lead initiative and be the primus inter pares.