Amidst palpable euphoria at India hosting the heads of all 10 Asean countries as guests of honour at its Republic Day ceremonial parade, preceded a day earlier by an ASEAN-India summit celebrating the silver anniversary of their relationship, India needs to shed its abiding image of bureaucratic inertia, of being tardy and slovenly in turning its initiatives into action.
Mere grandstanding in its proclaimed 'Look East' policy graduating to 'Act East' policy yields little unless sustained by a concrete action plan to build trust and inspire confidence by timely implementation of agreed programmes and schemes. India must ponder why even its close neighbourhood has for long felt alienated, and how it must infuse requisite verve and vigour in its avowed 'Neighbourhood First' policy.
Formed in Bangkok in 1966, Asean in Indian perception at that time during the intense Cold war era, was an American construct. Asean leaders too looked on India as a backward country with little to contribute. Since then much water has flown down the Mekong and the Ganga. Home to 640 million people, 8.8 per cent of the world's population, with combined nominal GDP of over $2.8 trillion, projected to rise to $10t by 2030, the 10-member Southeast Asian grouping now commands enviable economic and strategic importance. Today, it's not America but China that looms large over the region, economically and strategically, in league with Mao Zedong's famous declaration, "We must have Southeast Asia ....After we get that region, the wind from the East will prevail over the wind from the West".
From a chequered phase, the Asean-India partnership has steadily evolved since 1992, from India being a sectoral dialogue partner to full dialogue partner (1996), then summit level partner (2002), striding together towards seeking avenues to deepen mutual cooperation in the three 'C's - commerce, culture and connectivity. The Asean-India 25 years summit in Delhi has raised expectations for the historic milestone to usher in greater India-ASEAN community integration, their pluralistic and syncretic societies to re-discover their age-old cultural, religious and linguistic bonds, as they build mutual trust and confidence and deepen economic and strategic cooperation.
As the Summit leaders address geo-strategic and geo-political concerns beyond economic-commercial issues, India will no doubt strive to highlight the crucial socio-cultural dimension of the relationship as a bedrock for mutual understanding and respect. China has sprinkled Confucius cultural centres world over as manifestation of its soft power. India is well poised to emphatically, although much belatedly, highlight its civilisational and cultural links with Southeast Asia, helping pave the way towards 'shared destiny' with the peoples across the region.
Knowledge as well as perceptions of Indians for Southeast Asia remains poor, and vice versa. Little is known of India's profound cultural influences assimilated and interwoven into the cultures of the region, manifest in its religions and languages, music and dance, textiles and medical systems, art and architecture, exemplified, for example, in varied forms of Ramayana and Buddhist sculptures, temples such as Angkor Wat and Borobodur, and in Bali.
Connectivity is central to the Asean-India strategic and economic partnership. Connectivity development would encompass physical, cultural, institutional, people-to-people exchanges to be stimulated, as also in tourism, especially in cultural heritage-based realm, besides on epistemic and academic levels. Land, air and maritime infrastructure, so critical for trade and commerce as well as tourism and cultural exchanges, have not received attention that it deserves. The Nalanda University revival project at Rajgir has inspired no enthusiasm.
India habitually drags its feet on even projects that provide it lifelines of connectivity for its Northeast with the mainland via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh is critically important for regional connectivity for Nepal, Bhutan and India, also for linking South Asia and Southeast Asia by road and rail. Take the missing rail link between Agartala on the Indian side and Akhaura rail-head in Bangladesh, a mere 15 km stretch, critically important for India's Northeast to connect with the country's mainland. It has already languished for seven long years.
Strategically located at the tri-junction of East, Southeast and South Asia, sharing borders with India (1,640 km border with four of India's North-eastern states) and Bangladesh on its west, China, Laos and Thailand on the east, the only Asean country that shares a border with India, Myanmar is a veritable bridge between India and Asean. For long, India has talked of improving road and rail connections and a new port on Myanmar's Arakan coast, but its slothful energies have generally generated wariness. The 127 km Tamu-Kalay missing rail link in Myanmar, feasibility study of which was completed by RITES, has made no progress.
The Kaladan multimodal transit transport project, signed in 2008, has suffered unacceptable time and cost overruns. This mix of road and riverine transport project would give the landlocked Northeast access to the Indian Ocean and save a distance of about 625 km from the circuitous route through the Assam and Siliguri corridor.
The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway has been much delayed. The National Highway Authority has just awarded a contract for the construction of a two-lane 120 km highway in its Kalewa-Yargi section, following the 132 km Tamu-Kalewa section, referred to as Friendship Highway that India has built. It is hoped that proposed extension of trilateral highway to the entire Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam region will be undertaken with alacrity.
Similarly, nearer home, India has dithered in regard to a mere 18 km rail link for Biratnagar in Nepal, also a 15 km line for Bhairahwa, and reconstruction of the Jaynagar-Bijalpura line, likewise the 18 km Hashimara- Phueontsholing line in Bhutan. Instead of whining at China's bid to extend its rail network to Kathmandu,India could well deliberate with Nepal that recommended ten years ago a 174-km rail line to be built, connecting Birgunj with Kathmandu.
An unavoidable fact of geography, India commands the centre-stage in South Asia. Most of its neighbours share borders not only with it, also in most cases with one more country in the region. The region's geography dictates that the onus of region-wide connectivity devolves on India. All around India, China shares land borders with five SAARC countries, looks over the Chicken's Neck at a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. Although an extra-regional player, China has for long wanted to fill the South Asian space that nature gifted to India.
China comes across as a Plutus or a Croesus, enticing India's ring of neighbours. India is perceived more like a poor Lazarus. That India has no deep pockets is understandable; what is inexcusable is its bureaucratic sloth and smugness. While India remains a laggard, in sharp contrast China sprints ahead. India is seen as chugging along, metaphorically, with a bullock-cart mentality; China has zipped ahead like a Formula One racing car.
Time is propitious for India to undertake asymmetric responsibilities and push the process of regional integration forward. Involving various government departments and private and public firms, as they do, the projects need to be specifically owned by respective territorial division heads in Ministry of External Affairs with clear responsibility to coordinate, push and monitor them. A quarterly ATR (action taken report) generated by the concerned divisions for information, among others, of PMO should help.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development and former CMD, Container Corporation of India.)