West Bengal as a lever in India’s Act East policy

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Act East Policy launched by PM Modi at ASEAN summit at Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar is a logical extension of look East policy launched by PV Narshima Rao in 1992. Look East policy was aimed to strengthen ties between India and the ASEAN countries. Changed geopolitical realities necessitated India to reach out to its ASEAN neighbors with whom they shared historical, cultural and civilizational linkages. Post-1990’s tremendous strides in Indo-ASEAN relation were made. From India becoming a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992 to entering summit partnership in 2002. However, in decades after that,the momentum somewhat fizzled out. Thus, the NDA government in 2014 outlined its Act East policy to reinvigorate the momentum and build upon the foundations of “Look East” policy.

Given the scheme of things, regions like West Bengal and North Eastern India by default occupies an important position in the successfulrealization of India’s Act East policy. While NE states have issues of connectivity and governance and would require some time for India to reap its full potential. W.B. is ideally poised to act as a catalyst for India’s Act East policy.

Exploring the potential of West Bengal

West Bengal is India’s sixth largest economy, presently. Historically, it has been the hub of India’s freedom struggle and was the epicenter of the Raj. Culturally, it could be labeled as the site for Indian ‘Renaissance’. Geographically, it shares domestic boundaries with East Indian states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Sikkim, and Assam; internationally its borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, andNepal. PM Modi’s plan to kick-start Act East from Bangladesh by default puts W.B. into driver’s seat.

West Bengal, with a GSDP of US$ 1638.7 billion in 2017-18; literacy rate of 77.11% and home to industries like Tea, Petroleum & Petrochemical, leather, Iron& Steel, IT, mineral resources, automobiles, fisheries, jute product and textile. Besides, W.B is strategic entry points for markets in S.E. Asia also the cost of operating any business in Kolkata (W.B.’s capital) is less compared to the other metro cities. Thus, W.B. has all the potential to be a lever for Act East.

The current regime under CM Mamta Banerjee is trying to shed away its anti-corporate image and is vying for investments both domestic and abroad. In pursuit of the same, she is organizing annual business conclave called “Bengal Global Business Summit”. The state government received an investment proposal of 33.83 billion during Bengal Global Business Summit in 2017. Shehas initiated a slew of reforms during her tenure. Large-scale industries can get VAT refunds of 80-90% along with central sales tax reimbursement and other tax exemptions; Textile, IT and Start-UP are given further exemption on the behalf of state government. In terms of MSME, W.B. government established a venture capital of INR 200 CR. Its expertise in this field could be leveraged to benefit ‘South East Asian Countries’ as their economy too has huge potential in this field. Bengal could be developed as “Global Value Chain” for manufacturing operations between India and ASEAN. GVC is a system to take the advantage of low-cost production at a multinational level. In short, it is a component that entails the identification of low cost producing nations and has the advantage of geographical proximity.

W.B is going to house Microsoft center of excellence and several e-governance clusters. The government has decided to set up seven more IT parks in addition to existing eleven. Besides, it already has 200 industrial park and dedicated hubs for chemicals, textiles, andfood processing unit. Amritsar-Kolkata industrial too is scheduled to be operational by 2019; Besides W.B. plays pivotal link in various transnational ASEAN connectivity corridors like BIMSTEC and Kaladan multimodal project. According to DIPP,  FDI inflows in Bengal along with Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar island was around 4.19 billion

Cultural ties between West Bengal and ASEAN

In addition to geographical proximity and sound economic logic, West Bengal shares year old cultural exchange with South East Asian Nations. Sunil Amrith and Sugata Bose have explored the pre-colonial connections between South Asian Nations and Bay of Bengal. K.N.Chaudhri further argues that the Indian Ocean blends into Asia constituting Chinese, Sanskrit, India, and South East Asian Civilizations.

Countries like Bangladesh which PM Modi envisages as a starting point for Act East policy shares a common history, heritage, linguistic, culture and taste for literature music and arts. There exists a multidimensional relationship. India played a crucial role in Bangladesh’s “freedom struggle”. In fact, its national anthem was penned down by Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore. Notwithstanding, their conflict of interest both nations shared past have guided them to capitalize upon the synergies.

The same could be said regarding Burma (Myanmar)-Bengal connection. During the British rule, thousands of Indian poured in and made fortunes. Most of the professors, doctor, andadvocates were Bengalis. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay one of the greatest Bengali writers lived in Botatung in downtown Rangoon. It also holds a special place in Indian freedom struggle as Netaji’s famous slogan “Give me blood and I shall give you freedom” was first raised in Rangoon, now Yangoon. “House of Memories” restaurant still houses the memories of the placewhere Netaji met Myanmar’s national hero General Aung San, father of Ang San Suu Kyi.

Calcutta, intellectual and cultural capital of British India had a close relationship with Burma. The University of Calcutta educated Bengali’s were sent to Burma to run the day to day bureaucracy. Well off Burmese used to move to Hindu College, Calcutta University, and Calcutta Medical College. The monk U.Ottama, alumni of Hindu College opposed the separation of Burma from British India. He is credited with introducing hand woven Burmese cloth, or Pini influenced by Gandhi’s promotion of Khadi. He was a link between Burmese and Bengali nationalist.

Many authors ranging from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay to George Orwell has poignantly brought out close people to people exchanges between India and Burma during the Raj. More recently, Amitav Ghosh’s novel “The Glass Palace” narrates the story of his character Rajkumar who was lured to Burma in the 1880s by labor contractor. There is a profound literature which succinctly and movingly describes the socio-politico-cultural influence of British colonialism on Burma (Myanmar).

The same pattern of intimacy could be witnessed with respects to other ASEAN countries like Thailand, Vietnam, andothers. Calcutta, during the Raj, played an important role in interactions of Siam and British India. In historical Thai documents, Bengal was called the land of ‘Bangkala’. King Chulalongkornin 1872, as a young ruler visited Calcutta to learn modern ‘British’ way of public administration. He utilized his experience while carrying out a slew of administrative reform in Siam. King Prajadhipok welcomed Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in 1927. Gurudev read two poems namely “To Siam” and “Farewell to Siam”. In fact, the first one he himself read out during his reception. Besides, many Thai scholars have studied in India. One of Thailand’s leading indologistProfessor Karuna Kusalasai studied in Shantiniketan.

At the heights of the coldwar, Vietnam got emotional, ideological and political support from the Indian state of West Bengal. In fact, Vietnam became a topic of discussion in Bengali households. People started identifying itself with Vietnamese struggle and a slogan like ‘Tomar name Vietnam, Amar Nam Vietnam’ was shouted in every nook and corner of Calcutta. In fact, Calcutta acted as the easiest gateway for Vietnam during those days. The communist government in Bengal named Harrington Ho Chi Minh Sarani at the height of Vietnam war because the street housed American consulate. Besides, politics, Rabindranath Tagore is fondly remembered in Vietnam and was given tumultuous welcome in Saigon in 1929.

In addition to the above, there exists deep and profound cultural exchanges between Bengal and other nations of ASEAN and is in itself an academic theme to explore. British High Commission could grant a research project to explore these themes as British colonialism had a profound impact on the socio-culturaland political fabric of regions ranging from the Bayof Bengal to ASEAN.

West Bengal, on the bay of Bengal with strong political economic and cultural linkage, is an opportune location to kick start Act East initiative. Both Centre and State government needto work in close coordination to capitalize the existent historical, cultural, political and economic synergies between West Bengal and ASEAN. There is a need to expedite interconnectivity projects like Kaladan multimodal and Trilateral highway which has been lagging for quite some time now. The political class needs to take a proactive role in association with the private partnership to develop Bengal as a bridge between South Asia and ASEAN. The renewed interest by both central and state government in this regard is a welcoming sign.

Paras Ratna

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