It augurs well that the rendra Modi government has laid a good deal of emphasis on the empowerment of the country’s northeastern region by harping on the fact that the region has a high potential to serve as a meaningful gateway to the whole of Southeast Asia, with the dispensation dwelling on the need for a robust and meaningful Look East Policy (LEP) so that the country’s long-underrated hinterland charts out a new and holistic development trajectory. Fortutely, the Sarbanda Sonowal government too seems to have appreciated the need for translating LEP into a people-centric and region-oriented policy so as to propel the region towards new heights of development stemming from tangible engagements with Southeast Asia, the emphasis being on people-to-people contact as well, with tourism – of which there is no dearth of potential in India’s Northeast – being an added focus. Well, this being the optimism of the day, the question, nonetheless, remains as to whether the political leadership in question, with of course the bureaucracy in general being a laggard as usual, is even warming up to the imperatives of a meaningful and sustaible LEP by way of identifying some key areas that have to be necessarily worked upon in order to make LEP a meaningful policy framework.
For a Buoyant LEP
This brings us to the all-important question of what really ails the Indian Northeast’s development saga. It goes without saying that successive Central governments have been pumping huge fincial packages to the region in an effort to ‘revolutionize’ the region in terms of its economic health with an objective to also provide some remedies to its political maladies. As eminent US-based political scientist from Assam Prof Sanjib Baruah says in his remarkable book Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India, “Successive Indian prime ministers have announced generous fincial packages to address the structural obstacles to the region’s development. Indeed if money could solve problems, Northeast India by now should have been on the cusp of both an economic revolution and a political breakthrough. However, if we go by the experience of Afghanistan whose development challenges have attracted considerably more money and the attention of some of the world’s most talented development experts, it would be ïve to think that successful counter-insurgency and a lot of money would on their own get the Northeast out of its present predicament.”
Given the high rate of unemployment in the Northeast and the unemployability factor too due to the lack of job-oriented education, there is always room for discontent, unrest and militancy in the region, for which, as experts in sociological and political studies have often argued, what one needs is a pragmatic economic solution to the festering wounds that are economic in ture. (After all an empty stomach needs food, not intellectual theories of poverty and hunger.) Hence the imperative for a cheerful and meaningful LEP arises, which then also ought to be sustaible. And its dimensions are clear. Here comes the role of Myanmar, with its military regime of the past, known for its merciless handling of democratic dissent, rising to the occasion to inch towards democratic reforms and be part of a democratic process, which at the moment is a work in progress. There is no doubt at all that geostrategic equations have Chi working overtime to spread its arc of influence via the Myanmar route, fully aware as it is of India’s ability to penetrate some of the hitherto untouched strategic layers to consolidate its position in Southeast Asia. As of now, India, with a progressive statesman in Prime Minister rendra Modi, can play a very constructive role in facilitating the full transition of Myanmar into a functioning democracy, thereby winning the hearts of its people who have come out overwhelmingly in support of the democratic vision of one of the world’s best democracy champions in that country, the legendary Aung San Suu Kyi. This way Myanmar, to begin with, can be India’s best partner perhaps in LEP’s roadmap – indubitably to the advantage of both the countries.
If Myanmar, in the said scheme of things, could be a partner of growth vis-à-vis Northeast India’s development and growth trajectory, how can one gloss over this region’s soft power resource base – its unique historical and cultural affinity with Southeast Asia? As Prof Baruah, an intertiol authority on Northeast India, rightly says in his celebrated book in question, “While talking about our shared cultural ties with Southeast Asia, we refer endlessly to Buddhism, Angkor Vat, and the Ramaya. But we do not talk about the Southeast Asian roots of the Tai Ahoms or the Khasis. We scarcely acknowledge Balinese Hinduism and art forms are probably closer to Manipur’s than to those of the Hindi heartland. Yet in Southeast Asia itself there is growing awareness of Northeast India. For instance there is keen interest in Thailand in the culture of the Tai Ahoms of Assam. Similarly, Tai-Ahom intellectuals in Assam are focusing on the cultures of their ethnic cousins in Southeast Asia… The Ahoms are not the only people of Northeast India with a Southeast Asian connection. The Khasis of Meghalaya had pioneered rice farming in Vietm’s Red River delta before losing out to the Vietmese. They then moved up the Red River across Myanmar into Yunn before crossing into India. But to date the cultural ties between Northeast India and Southeast Asia remains completely untapped as soft power resource in India’s Look East Policy.”
In many a way, the bureaucracy, as experts have repeatedly pointed out, have failed LEP due either to knowledge deficit in the matter of Northeast India’s soft power potential vis-à-vis Southeast Asia or to the very ture of our bureaucracy that refuses to change and grow with time. Nevertheless, there is always room for reform and optimism, which, in the context of the need for a buoyant LEP, means there is always room for a meaningful course correction so that this beautiful land of ours – the unique Northeast where people celebrate their diversity and have a burning desire to grow with the rest of the country and the world – gets what it deserves, which is holistic development for one and all. One hopes the political leadership rises to the occasion for a people who deserve far more than what they have got all these years.