Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi’s aim to integrate the SAARC member nations most likely is his top priority foreign policy goal. If this is achieved it will undoubtedly be a game changer for the whole region. Mr. Modi’s first foreign trips to Bhutan and Nepal indicate his priorities. Doubtless he will visit all other SAARC countries. But the goal of upgrading SAARC into a South Asian Union (SAU) can be dramatically hastened. Before leaving for Nepal Mr. Modi hoped to open a new chapter in Indo-Nepalese ties. He specified enhanced economic relationship. After his return he can initiate a radical proposal. He can turn conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of enhanced trade creating the total trust required for establishing SAU he can establish total trust to enhance trade.
It may be noted that India’s relations with SAARC neighbours are soured by trust deficit created through terrorism. LTTE in Sri Lanka, Maoists and Pakistani infiltrators in Nepal, Islamist terrorists in Pakistan and Bangladesh, are all preventing South Asian integration. This is not an accident. It is through the design of hostile foreign forces interested to keep South Asia divided.
India can frustrate these hostile forces by starting with Nepal. It has to exploit its unique relationship with Nepal. As being the only two nations with Hindu majority populations there is great and natural empathy between the common peoples of India and Nepal. Added to this is another crucial element. Since 1947 there has been continuing relationship between the Indian army and its Nepalese counterpart. This is due to the Gorkha regiments of the Indian Army.
After independence six Gorkha regiments formerly of the British Indian Army became part of the Indian Army. A seventh Gorkha regiment was established by the Indian Army comprising Gorkha soldiers who refused a transfer to the British Army. All Gorkha soldiers are ethnic Nepalese given Indian citizenship. They have earned reputation of great courage and won innumerable gallantry awards. Their induction into the Indian Army could not have been without tacit approval of the Nepalese Army. Therefore already there is considerable trust on which more can be built.
Mr. Modi can offer full fledged joint defence to Nepal between both armies. This treaty should include joint defence over even India’s nuclear weapons. An apex body of both governments would exercise ultimate authority over use of nuclear weapons. Could Nepal refuse such an offer? If such a treaty were signed it would automatically lead to a two-nation SAU with common market, joint defence, enormously enhanced trade and curtailed visa restrictions. Would not other SAARC nations be tempted to join?
After his historic invitation to SAARC heads of state to his swearing in ceremony, this should be the next step for Mr. Modi if he really means business.