t a recent conference on Myanmar in New Delhi, Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio of Nagaland spoke of how important it was to involve the northeastern states in foreign policy, pointing out that the region borders Myanmar, the only member of the Association of South East Asian Nations that has a physical land boundary with India.
Rio, a frank and energetic politician who has won two terms of office and is looking at a third when elections come his way in 2014, is an extremely practical person. He is also a key player in efforts to stitch together a durable peace that can merge into a settlement for his proud yet tragic people, sandwiched between two nations and the cusp of history.
Rio is an example of how, in a complex area like the Northeast where ethnicities define politics and clan and tribe loyalties cement social and political affiliations, regional figures like him are increasingly crucial to "national" policy making.
In his remarks to the Myanmar conference, organised between Jamia Millia Islamia and the India International Centre, the Nagaland Chief Minister took note of the opportunities before the region and its relations with SE Asia, but emphasised the importance of being practical and ensuring that infrastructure and access to services reached people.
He also noted that under the new but growing democratic dispensation in Myanmar, the Nagas, for the first time, had been given a constitutional and political space in decades.
The next months will show how the new rulers of Myanmar (military figures in civilian garb but doing all the right things, it seems) and leaders such as the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy take this opportunity or stumble in the process. At risk is fashioning a role that not just accommodates, but enables major ethnic groups such as the Kachins, Chins, Karens and Shans, to mention just four, and smaller ones like the Nagas and the Was, to play roles as equal partners in the making of a new Myanmar. There are many sensitive and difficult issues involved here, many suspicions and divisions to be overcome.
Leaders like Rio, Mizoram's Lalthanhawla, Assam's Tarun Gogoi, Sikkim's Pawan Chamling, Tripura's Manik Sarkar and Arunachal Pradesh's Nabum Tuki are far better equipped and knowledgeable to drive foreign policy that benefit the Northeast and India than mandarins in Delhi. It would be far more useful for the Centre to discuss these issues with them, rather than just talking with "specialists", intelligence officials and members of the foreign policy and defence establishments. It would be appropriate to design a foreign policy unit comprising the Minister for External Affairs and his representative as well the Chief Ministers (not Governors) of the northeastern states that can advise New Delhi on how to move forward on a gamut of issues, ranging from trade and security to migration and navigation. This is a natural next step to the Look East Policy, which is more bluster than reality, more about car rallies than about improving the lives of ordinary people or connecting them to each other.
This can be developed as part of the North Eastern Council, which is an arm of the Ministry for the Development of the North Eastern Region, but whose role in the development and growth of the region is, frankly, minor, with an annual budget of about Rs 600 cr. By giving such space to the NER, the Centre could actually be multi-tasking and, for a change, with minimum investment, creating multiple benefits for the region. Practical politicians like Rio, with an ear to the ground, will know what projects will bring maximum benefits for their people. There is every virtue in connecting local opportunities to foreign policy; after all, why should armed militants, with bases in the neighbourhood, be the principal beneficiaries of "flexible" borders?
In this, the Minister for the Northeast, Pawan Singh Ghatowar, must take a lead so that the NEC is, to put it mildly, rescued from the contradictions inherently built into its system. A regional planning body that seeks to please all eight political constituents is doomed, despite the best efforts of its thoughtful Secretary, Uttam Sangma. Sangma's predecessor has remarked that although the NEC was launched in 1972 as a regional planning body, there was no official order to connect it to New Delhi. It was not an independent unit, but only a small disbursing office for Government of India funds.
Using the skills of northeastern leaders, as suggested here, new initiatives can help shape the future of relations across the borders and bring tangible benefits to those on this side.