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To be attentive to history is to be on the lookout for pivotal moments, and in India’s economic and geopolitical context, 2014 would most likely stand out as a hugely pivotal time. With the financial crisis hardly over or even continuing—depending on how optimistic or pessimistic our outlook is—the West has turned its attention towards itself. It isn’t focussed much on South East Asia, largely defining India’s problems as structural and those of our neighbours, like Nepal, as poverty-related. These are traditionally the lowest station of the developed West’s policy priorities. Western Europe, especially the UK, which had colonised this region a century ago, has reoriented its focus onto itself. The only reason the developed world has any interest in this part of the globe, especially India, is that it sees the latter as large, capital-starved markets with English-speaking, well-educated professionals who would nonetheless be satisfied being paid bargain-basement wages by the standards of the West.
The US, apart from concentrating on its economic problems by essentially printing dollars, has its focus dominated by security. It is investing its energy and resources in a series of interventions in the greater Middle East, leading to a sequence of costly and inconclusive wars in the Islamic world.
In contrast, following the May 2014 general elections, our economic progress is beginning to rev up, and the new BJP government is able to survey the world, including its neighbours, with the fresh eyes that emergence from a long period of relative slumber brings. The Indian leadership, under Narendra Modi, opportunely recognises that India needs to assume the leadership position in the region that rightfully belongs to us, as was evident in the new government’s swearing-in ceremony becoming a mini-Saarc event. For India to hold its own in the global economy, like it did while vetoing the WTO agreement irrespective of the latter’s merits, it has to start donning a leadership role in the South East Asian region. Modi seems to be committed to a policy known simply as ‘reaching out’ and has selected our immediate neighbours to implement this. As they say in the corporate world, effective leaders begin their work with their immediate colleagues. After getting a red-carpet welcome in neighbouring Bhutan last month—his first port of call—Modi seems to have prioritised the South Asian neighbourhood over powerful Western countries, and rightly so.
It is under this new economic-geopolitical context that we need to