A few months ago, in November 2014, at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Ta, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government sought to turn the country’s Look East Policy, LEP for short, into an Act East Policy. Recent events along the Indo-Myanmarese border and its aftermath have, however, have put a big question mark on this intention.

The LEP, inaugurated in the post-liberalisation era of 1991, reflected a strategic shift in India's vision of the world and its place in the global economy, as officially stated, and a commitment to making India’s northeast region a trading and commercial hub for southeast Asia. Indian governments have been found wanting particularly on the second aim.

A new stage

India is trying to improve its economic ties with Myanmar, with trade between the two nations rising from $12 million in the 1980s to $2 billion now. Myanmar shares a 1,600 km border with India, including a maritime border in the Bay of Bengal. It is the gateway to the ASEAN group of countries, and lies at the intersection of India’s and China’s clashing interests for achieving regional dominance.

However, unlike the western frontier, Myanmar has arrived relatively late on the Indian foreign policy scene, not surprising when it borders a region in the country that itself has faced neglect. India did not explore the full potential of Myanmar because it was seen as being very remote.

With India and China playing a new Great Game in Central Asia, this has changed. Political scientists, such as David Scott, point to three areas involved: military-security, economic and diplomatic. To execute its LEP, Indian must judiciously balance these. Enter Myanmar, which is where Indian meets China.

After the ambush

When the Indian army purportedly moved well into the Myanmarese territory on June 10 to attack camps belonging to insurgent outfits from the north-east, it was an unprecedented act, but not surprising. Cross-border insurgency has been listed as one of the roadblocks in the LEP, and India and Myanmar signed an MoU in 2010.

More disturbing than the act was the manner in which the government turned it into a public relations exercise, trumpeting its own “iron will” and decisiveness. In the aftermath, there was not much space left to ascertain the validity of the goverrnment’s claims, let alone the ramifications of something so unprecedented.

Brazen official announcements and a sense of euphoric heroism created by the media also discomfited the Myanmar establishment. It is too early to see the domestic and foreign policy consequences of this sensitive disclosure on Myanmar.

At the same time, the absence of local voices and accounts is worrying. Both the Manipur and Nagaland state governments were in the dark about the operation, with the Manipur chief minister saying he had learnt of it from media reports.

Real development

In September, in Tokyo, India made Japan a part of its LEP. But itoo much is happening diplomatically before improvements on the ground.

Under the LEP, the Indian government does have plans for north-east India, such as building highway and rail links and a natural gas pipeline. But the north-eastern states must themselves be developed, failing which they will become just a corridor or a super-highway.

The region’s people must become stakeholders of any plans. The Modi government has the mandate and can take state governments into confidence. But if one-party dominance returns to Indian politics, the push for decentralisation will falter.

Delhi has long seen the north-east as a frontier, and now too it is being viewed this way through the lens of the LEP. But for "look east" to become "act east", the Indian government must place the north-east region at the centre of its plans.

This article has been adapted from Nezine.com.

Kaustubh Deka teaches political science at the Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University, and is a former fellow with the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai.