India’s rapid rise as a global economic power has raised a ray of hope in most of post-pandemic South Asia. However, significance lies in countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s apparent move to walk hand-in-hand with New Delhi for their growth and prosperity
Where there’s a will, there’s a way! South Asian countries—excluding Pakistan and the Maldives as of now –appear increasingly ready to work together for the region’s economic turnaround. What seems to have motivated them are India’s ceaseless efforts to be among the world’s top three economies by 2030.

Two of the many important planks on which India has rested its economic dreams are Neighbourhood First and Act East policies, both are intricately related to South Asia. New Delhi regards Neighbourhood First as a stepping stone for its quicker and greater rise, first across Asia and then the world.

Neighbourhood First may be described as an affirmation of the unique role that India alone can play in the economic growth of the region's eight countries that together constitute the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SARRC). India is the only country with land or sea links to all but one SAARC nation.
It’s the sole land link between Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Besides, it is the closest neighbour of the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which are part of SAGAR (Security and Growth of All in the Region), an Indian initiative launched for the development of the Indian Ocean region nine years ago.

Afghanistan-- the newest SAARC member-- is the only country not directly linked to India by land or sea, but it, like Pakistan, cannot trade with Nepal and Bhutan without using Indian soil. Nor can Afghanistan and Pakistan ever have profitable business ties with Bangladesh without India’s assistance.

Revival of Common Dream

Until the outbreak of the pandemic, the South Asian countries seemed more interested in talking about their differences than in cultivating the advantages of a shared history, culture, economy and geography.
This adversely affected the functioning of the SAARC, the region’s first joint initiative towards common economic growth. For close to a decade, the SAARC has remained almost defunct because of India-Pakistan differences, particularly over Kashmir violence.

All this has made India and some of its closest neighbours intensify their search for other alternatives free of India-Pakistan tensions in their pursuit for faster economic growth. One such platform is the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal), an initiative focused on economy, transport and supply connectivity.

In addition, SAARC nations such as India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka also now increasingly lean on the seven-nation BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The Southeast Asian nations of Myanmar and Thailand are the remaining two BIMSTEC members.

Friends in Action

The beginning of 2021, when the world was still reeling from the impact of the pandemic, New Delhi expedited its economic-centric diplomatic engagements with its neighbours. It chose Bangladesh, one of its biggest economic partners in Asia, as its first port of call for bilateral exchanges.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in March 2021 that marked the 50th year of the eastern neighbour’s independence.

 This was followed by the visits of President Ramnath Kovind, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar to each other’s countries.

Similarly, the last two years have seen visits to India by Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (more popular as Prachanda, his nom de guerre), Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe. In between, such diplomatic visits also took place between India and the Maldives.

All these exchanges were mainly focused on the promotion of bilateral multi-dimensional cooperation. Last year, an Indian delegation visited Kabul from where India had withdrawn its diplomatic presence in 2021.

Catalysts of Change

At the moment, South Asia, like elsewhere in the world, is trying hard to make up for its economic destruction, first caused by the pandemic and then by high inflation propelled by the Ukraine War. 

In addition, low domestic revenue and high expenditure, and heavy international debts have led many South Asian countries to follow an economy-centric foreign policy along the lines of India.

Political changes in parts of South Asia since the beginning of the pandemic look encouraging for the enhancement of economic cooperation more than ever.  Bangladesh has just elected Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who is regarded as a friend of India’s, to power for a fourth consecutive term.

In its recent national elections, Bhutan, too, brought back Tshering Tobgay, known for his respect for India’s interests and sensibilities, as prime minister. Nepal now has a coalition government that wants to work closely with India setting aside old non-economic irritants.

Likewise, Sri Lanka, now under President Wickremesinghe, has moved closer to India, which came to its rescue when its economy collapsed during the pandemic. As regards Afghanistan, India was one of the 10 countries invited by Kabul for a conclave on regional cooperation last month.

In an aberration, the Maldives under President Mohammed Moizzu has lately begun to lean towards its new-found friend China. All eyes are now on Pakistan that is mired in political instability for quite some time.

Win-Win Moment

In recent years, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan have taken numerous decisions to help each other in key sectors such as power, agriculture, tourism, trade, technology and rail and road connectivity.

India, which has about 1.4 billion of South Asia’s nearly 2 billion people, is a huge market for electricity (generated in Nepal and Bhutan) and agricultural and factory produce from Bangladesh as well the two Himalayan nations. India has agreed to allow Bhutan and Nepal to sell power to Bangladesh through its territory.

For India, the use of Bangladeshi territory will shorten the distance between the Northeast and the rest of India. It also offers parts of the Northeast, Bhutan, and Nepal access to the sea through Bangladeshi ports.  Nepal and Bhutan can expand their trade with Bangladesh and Southeast Asia through Northeast India.

The list of such benefits from multilateral cooperation is limitless. For the destinies of the South Asian nations are intertwined. They are there to share together good or bad, forever.

(This article first appeared in INN)

*** The author is an ex-editor of The Times of India, who writes on diplomatic/SAARC affairs, Nepal, Bhutan, and China-Tibet issues; views expressed here are his own