Even as New Delhi consolidates its global standing this year with a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, Jyoti Malhotra feels it will be the countries in its immediate neighbourhood that will be top priority for India's foreign office.
With the world having beaten a path to India's door in 2010, the foreign office greets 2011 with a curious combination of fatigue and euphoria. Luckily, the New Year falls on a weekend, which gives the rest of India time to transit to the decade's new expectations. From all the signs so far, this is going to be the Year of the Neighbourhood.
In the first week itself, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna flies to Kabul to reiterate New Delhi's warm ties with Afghanistan, although there's a catch here. In the decade that's just gone by, India has consistently helped the Afghans stand on their feet. But the big question now confronting Krishna and friends is, where does New Delhi go from here?
With the Americans set to draw down their troops in 2014, India should begin developing its own roadmap to ramp up assistance in the economic, political and security arenas. There has been an offer from the Afghans, seconded by the US, for India to train and re-train its police. Kabul now hopes that India will move beyond its anti-Pakistan obsession and look at new ways to strengthen the India-Afghanistan relationship. Let the new Great Game begin!
The diplomatic season will get its second wind with the arrival of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as chief guest of India's Republic Day celebrations on January 26, cementing Delhi's Look East policy in earnest. The India-ASEAN free trade agreement will also soon move into its second phase, with a pact on services, while Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements with Malaysia and Vietnam are also on the cards.
Perhaps Yudhoyono's visit will bump up general interest in New Delhi's East policy which has languished under the radar for so long. China is the main presence in this part of the world, which is why this region was known as Indo-China, until at least the Vietnam War put an end to that innocence. Myanmar belongs to ASEAN, but India could also claim it for its Bay of Bengal community grouping, which otherwise goes by the unwieldy name of BIMSTEC. In the dying days of 2010, senior diplomat Jayant Prasad tipped to be India's new ambassador to Nepal attended a ceremony at Sittwe, the Myanmarese port on the Bay, where Essar is building a river-and-road transport corridor connecting the Arakan Yoma to India's north-east. In 2011, it is said, Krishna wants to go to both Yangon and Naypidaw to reinforce the fact that India and Myanmar share not only history, but also geography.
Speaking of Jayant Prasad, his posting to Kathmandu must be among the most watched-for diplomatic appointments in 2011. Fact is India-Nepal relations have sunk to a new low in the last couple of years which is why the prime minister's special envoy and a former ambassador to Nepal, Shyam Saran, travelled to Kathmandu a few months ago to sort out the mess. Nepal is far too important for individuals to matter. The Maoists will have to be brought back into the fold and the peace process, which New Delhi brokered on those long nights and days of April 2006, and is on the verge of failure, resurrected. Prasad will have his work cut out for him.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, is the continuing success story, with New Delhi and Dhaka seeking to rewrite history as they finally agree on smoothening out their border problems and ending the ridiculous divisions of small slivers of territories into enclaves and corridors. The home secretaries of the two countries met when Obama was in town, so there was enough media distraction to let them do the real work. From 1971 to 2011, it's taken only 40 years to finalise the remaining 6.5 km of the 4,000 km-odd boundary between India and Bangladesh. The improvement in ties with Bangladesh will definitely count as one of Manmohan Singh's greatest achievements in the years to come.
Pakistan is the old perennial, with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expected to make a trip to India this year. Question is, will the prime minister have the courage to bite the bullet and introduce people-to-people measures that will generally ease restrictions, including on the visa front? One of the big question marks for 2011 is whether Manmohan Singh will reclaim the space he has ceded to hardliners as well as to fence-sitters on Pakistan Watch this space!
Still, starting today New Delhi and New York will be connected by a quiet moment of satisfaction as India assumes its place as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. For the next two years, India has the chance to show the stuff it is made up of. Instead of getting bogged down with the rhetoric of the past, New Delhi must stand up and take charge of all the good and bad that goes with the territory.
Making peace with the neighbourhood, for its own sake, would be a great start