India’s ‘Act East’ policy: Unlocking Manipur

Dr Pamreihor Khashimwo
The present government under Narendra Modi leadership has a renewed commitment to India’s ‘Look East’ Policy (LEP) and rechristened it, the ‘Act East’ Policy (AEP). The LEP was adopted in 1991 to reorient Indian foreign policy towards East Asia and Southeast Asia. The ‘Act East’ policy endeavours to cultivate extensive economic, energy and strategic relations in Southeast Asia. However, New Delhi lackadaisical commitment to the policy has brutally constrained India’s presence and role in the regions, even as Chinese influence weakens Indian supremacy in South Asia. But over the past few years, the flurry of meetings between top Indian political leaders, officials, and their regional counterparts, is signs that ‘Act East’ policy represents a renewed vigour and gradual shift in Indian foreign policy.
With a range of academics, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs, and current and former politicians and bureaucrats develop enthusiasm about the present government ambitions for boosting cross-border connectivity, but also major questions about the practical scope for a change about Manipur and the future of India-Myanmar connectivity. Lately, an agreement with Myanmar to crack down on regional insurgencies, a route mapping exercise for the long-awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service, and continued progress on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Nodal Transit Project. Till date, however, the two countries have no rail links (under construction), the only road link (Asian Highway 1, or AH-1) is awfully precarious, insecure and poorly maintained and there are no regular flights services too.
The deficits in India-Myanmar overland connectivity reflect a complex range of issues: Yangon’s limited control in northern Myanmar, Delhi’s obsession on transnational and internal security threats in the Northeast, and bumpy bilateral relations with Myanmar’s former military junta. But within India and Myanmar, Delhi and Yangon are not the only players influencing the progress of bilateral connectivity. If Modi Government wishes to live up to from the present ‘rhetorical’ and ‘master of promise’ approach on heightening Indian ties with its eastern neighbours, it is extremely vital for Delhi to work closely with local players in the four states on the India-Myanmar border: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Of these, Manipur is the most important. As New Delhi attempts to build links with its neighbours in the region, the fate of Manipur will be revealing. Manipur’s border post at Moreh, on Asian Highway-1, handles 99 per cent of formal overland trade between India and Myanmar, and also the bulk of India-Myanmar informal and/or illegal trade.
Though, policy implementation in Manipur involves engaging with a number of players: the state government, central infrastructure bodies- whose agendas do seldom align with the needs of cross-border trade and local needs, the Indian Army units, insurgents outfits, and local players. These issues are of particular concern because India is not necessarily operating from a position of strength in border trade. Sadly, the current patterns favour Burmese businessmen, and Chinese and Southeast Asian manufacturers and traders. Thus, even if India’s border trade position improves, it is an open question to what extent Manipur’s economy will benefit. The state’s economic struggles drive many of the dynamics that interfere with connectivity initiatives today; these dynamics will continue to cause trouble so long as those struggles persist.
Left unresolved, the state’s weak economic base will restrict avenues for the people of Manipur to take advantage of the opportunities that stronger connectivity brings. It is suggested that some sectors are in relatively better positions, such as medical tourism, and also potentially broader ones like horticulture. The best-case scenario would see such sectors survive the state’s formidable deficits in infrastructure and law and order to lay a foundation for a more competitive economy. Cautious central government engagement will be essential; targeted infrastructure funding, steady incentives for investment, improve banking system, conducive political and security environment, improved mechanisms of accountability and connectivity.
Overland connectivity with ASEAN has long been presented as a priority for the AEP and for developing Northeast region. But those hoping that renamed ‘Act East’ policy will spark a rapid transformation in development and connectivity for the benefit of Manipur, and of the rest of Northeast region would only do well to temper their hopes. Reshaping Indo-Myanmar connectivity requires rewiring basic features of the development environment in Manipur, through diligence, attention to local perspectives, strong political commitment and skilful bureaucratic management.
Connectivity may not deliver much for Manipur without concurrent improvements in the state’s economic base; local development will be a boon for connectivity by weakening the nexus of corruption and insurgency. Today, with the insurgent’s ideological underpinnings corroding, their strength rests more and more upon their ability to offer state’s youth access to income amidst a bleak state economy. Meanwhile, local underdevelopment boosts corruption’s hold on the local economy, nearly all large-scale investment opportunities for accumulating wealth in the state comes through public expenditure.
Manipur within India’s ‘Act East’ policy represents a serious test for New Delhi- of its ability to execute its agenda, and of its sensitivity to local concerns. Stronger connectivity requires major infrastructure initiatives and recognition of the development needs of people of Manipur. In one of India’s most corrupt states, can rails and roads be done right? To what extent will such issues feature on Delhi’s connectivity agenda? New Delhi, in policy design and implementation, does not have a good record on these questions. But only it has the combination of resources and responsibilities to coordinate between and shape the behaviour of the various players of Manipur’s political economy– interest groups, state authorities, the security establishment, and civil society and other local players. Success in these efforts would require tenacity and comprehensive approach for both state government and New Delhi. A more stable and thriving Manipur, emerging overland trade corridors to ASEAN, and new political and diplomatic leverage for Delhi in East and Southeast Asia. That is really Acting East.

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