Bureaucracy and BIMSTEC

The fourth summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, has come to an end in Kathmandu with the release of a 14-point declaration in the presence of the leaders of the seven nations of the grouping. The Indian government would like coverage of the occasion to focus on the fact that the declaration specifically refers to counter-terror issues — which further drives in New Delhi’s point that BIMSTEC is an efficient counter to the generally ineffective South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, or SAARC. Progress on the latter is constantly held hostage to the state of the India-Pakistan grouping at any point in time, and it is hoped that BIMSTEC could be a sufficient replacement. This, however, betrays wishful thinking — and, in fact, such political-minded short-termism could doom BIMSTEC early on. New Delhi’s commitment to regional initiatives, including but not limited to BIMSTEC, should be evaluated in terms other than empty declarations about terrorism.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to connectivity in his speech at the summit is a more rational and forward-looking basis to judge the utility of any regional grouping. And, certainly, BIMSTEC, which brings together India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal in South Asia with Myanmar and Thailand in Southeast Asia, has considerable potential in terms of connectivity growth. The markets and resources of the two regions could benefit from the development of soft and hard infrastructure — including through cross-border regulatory and technical measures such as the inter-connection of electricity grids, the subject of a memorandum of understanding signed at Kathmandu in the presence of the seven leaders. However, it is also true that, evaluated objectively, India’s commitment to leadership in the forum comes up wanting. Neither in terms of economics nor of security has India stepped up to the plate in its Southeast Asian near neighbourhood recently. It has not been able to up the tempo of its infrastructure engagement in Myanmar, for example, in spite of increased questions among the Burmese elite about the wisdom of over-investing in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Nor, when it comes to security, has India played a positive role on the primary issue convulsing the Bay of Bengal nations today, the plight of the Rohingya.


Worst of all, few will take India’s pretensions to leadership on connectivity seriously when even in South Asia it has failed to move many important initiatives forward in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) grouping, which is a subset of BIMSTEC. This is entirely due to bureaucratic and inter-ministerial failures in New Delhi. The power ministry has been allowed to hijack the notion of a common electricity market in these four countries, for example, with the result that important joint ventures between Indian and Bhutanese power enterprises, for example, are hanging fire — an issue now in the ongoing Bhutanese elections. Worse, perhaps, confusion in New Delhi has led to a delay in implementing the protocols for freer passenger and then cargo movement as part of the motor vehicles agreement between the BBIN countries. If BIMSTEC is to be taken seriously, the political leadership in New Delhi must first remove the self-imposed hurdles on these existing efforts at integration.