Twenty years after it began doing the buzz in the Northeast, theNortheast region is still waiting for the much touted Look EastPolicy, LEP, to arrive and deliver the promised dividends. Quiteliterally, the mix of anxiety and optimism with which the LEP is awaited here has been one in the nature of “Waiting for Godot” Samuel Beckett’s famous two-actor play by the same name in which the two friends keep saying “lets’ go” and the end of each act of the two acts, but remain frozen and bewildered at their mutual incomprehension of where or for what purpose they were to go from where they were. The picture however is becoming a lot clearer now. That the Northeast is there in India’s 20 year old Look East policy is merely incidentally and indeed India had been looking east not from the direction of the Northeast for a long time. It was only about 10 years ago, which is 10 years after the initiative was launched, that as if in afterthought the Northeast was brought into the radar of the LEP, with the kind of fanfare marked by an Indo-ASEAN car rally which was flagged off from Guwahati by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and traversed almost the entire South East Asia, to culminate in the Philippines.
The important question that should not have been missed all this while is, just why would India look east from the direction of the Northeast? As a trade oriented policy, it would indeed have been far more logical for India to think of the sea routes, thereby its Bay of Bengal rim states, Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu would have been as the connecting points and thus the chief beneficiaries. Indeed, the LEP has been in rapid progress and trade volumes have been on the increase between India and the rest of SE Asia through the years, though perhaps not to the extent desired, but the important point is, this trade has literally been bypassing the Northeast all the while and except for encouragement to some small time head-load trades amongst communities along the border, literally nothing else has been happening. The super highways which are to connect the Northeast to the rest of SE Asia are only heard of and still not within sight, Myanmar remains a black hole of politics as well as infrastructure. But even this black hole is better off in many ways in terms of infrastructure than much of the other known but unacknowledged black hole called the Northeast. One has only to drive down to Moreh in Manipur and compare it with the neighbouring Myanmarese town of Tamu to be convinced of this. Tamu is becoming a bustling business outpost. It is also expanding rapidly. Its roads and avenues are wider, straight, well swept and almost all turn at right angle, they also have the planned look, hotels are cleaner, eating places are more varied… All in all, a sense of optimism that is the invaluable attribute of people gainfully engaged in work can also be seen in the continence of the people by and large in this town. On an incremental basis, Moreh compares very poorly with its neighbour. Not so long ago, as many will recall, the two were virtually on the samefooting. Today this parity is becoming a receding memory.
What then must be the kind of advocacy that those in the Northeast must pursue now? India cannot be persuaded to look away from the direction it has been looking, for as a former ambassador in one of the SE Asia nations put it recently during a workshop in Guwahati, the LEP has many components including maritime cooperation, national security considerations and trade is just one although important constituent of this ambitious project. The easy way to pursue these goals would also not be necessarily through the Northeast, even if the law and order situation in the region was nothing to worry about. The Northeast it seems is doomed to suffer a policy vacuum, even in one which deals with its neighbours just across the border. This being the case, the push now from the point of view of the Northeast must be for the LEP to have a political vision as well and not merely trade and commerce. Let the current trend of the LEP which lays a premium on the sea routes continue, but it must have a parallel component that brings the Northeast into sharp focus. It will have to be also ultimately about an economic agenda, but logic for kick-starting it must have a strong political will of benefiting the Northeast by integrating its economy to the natural economic region it belongs to. A prosperous and forward looking Northeast, not one given to a state of stagnation both in terms of tangible economic indexes as well as a mindset of victimhood, will ultimately be in everybody’s interest, most of all of the so called “national interest”.