West Bengal Is The Bottleneck Of India’s “Act East” Strategy
New Delhi has sought in recent years to rebrand its “Look East” policy towards ASEAN as the muscular and invigorated “Act East” one which aims to most closely connect the subcontinent with the neighboring economic bloc. In a sense, this is India’s response to China’s One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Roads, and the flagship project is the Trilateral Highway between itself, Myanmar, and Thailand. Upon future completion, it’s anticipated that this initiative will greatly facilitate commercial activity and real-sector trade between the three states, which in turn will enable the robust expansion of Indian influence deeper into the ASEAN mainland.
In parallel with this but much less promising due to the undeclared political obstacles which have emerged between its two largest players, there’s also the possibility for the BCIM Corridor between Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar to get up and running one of these days, which could theoretically lessen the rivalry between New Delhi and Beijing in their mutually adjacent neighbor of Myanmar. Pertaining to that crucially positioned country, India is also pursuing the much smaller-scale project of the Kaladan Corridor, a series of multimodal infrastructure initiatives connecting the northwestern Myanmarese coast with Northeastern India.
With time, India expects that the successful completion of all of these endeavors will allow it to eventually compete with China and provide a viable balancing alternative for ASEAN. Complementary to this, New Delhi hopes that it can cement its influence to the extent of reliably integrating part or all of this bloc into its leadership’s hegemonic conception of the “Indian Ocean Region”, which would thus expand India’s sphere of geopolitical influence along ancient civilizational lines.
The challenge for India, however, is that a large part of this strategy is inordinately dependent on the state of West Bengal, which oftentimes finds itself at odds with the central government in New Delhi. It’s not to suggest that Kolkata would ever seek to deliberately disrupt the rest of India’s planned overland trade with ASEAN out of malicious intent, but simply to draw attention to how it might leverage its irreplaceable transit location and consequent geostrategic significance in order to extract beneficial concessions from New Delhi. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her All India Trinamool Congress have always been in favor of a more decentralized federal approach towards their state, and this platform has become even more attractive to their constituents in the aftermath of Prime Minister Modi’s disastrous “demonetization” decision.
In the event of widespread political and/or socio-economic unrest in the state, whether due to anti-center protests and/or Bangladesh-originating terrorist attacks, India’s access to the troubled Northeastern States might quickly and indefinitely become impeded, thus presenting a major national security risk for New Delhi. Moreover, a period of extended political uncertainty and perhaps even serious security concerns in West Bengal might serve as a deterrent to private trade, thereby tempering the high hopes that India has pinned on the Trilateral Highway and its ambitious “Act East” strategy.
New Delhi is aware of this premier geostrategic vulnerability, which is why it pursued the underwhelming Kaladan Corridor in the first place and signed an historic transshipment agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 (made possible by an equally historic and long overdue land swap deal), but both of these alternatives are of limited function and have their own practical constraints. Furthermore, it’ll still take a long time for them to enter into full use, if at all, so for the foreseeable future, West Bengal will remain New Delhi’s most dependable access route to the Northeastern States and mainland ASEAN’s marketplace. For this reason, Chief Minister Banerjee is in an enviable political position whereby she couldrealistically leverage her state’s location in order to maximize the chances that the national government will concede to her decentralization proposals.
It’s still far from certain that they she’ll be successful, and Prime Minister Modi is well-known for his stubbornness, but New Delhi certainly has very compelling reasons to seriously consider what could eventually amount to the bestowing of broad self-governing privileges to West Bengal. On the other hand, the granting of full autonomy or “identity Federalized” status to one state would inevitably catalyze a larger process of decentralization and possibly even outright devolution in some of the others, heightening the prospects that residents of the Northeastern States and Tamil Nadu would agitate for similar rights. India might not be prepared for a 21st-century version of the States Reorganization Act, no matter how belated and beneficial it could be, which is why New Delhi might stringently oppose Chief Minister Banerjee’s initiatives despise West Bengal’s crucial geostrategic role in actualizing India’s “Act East” strategy.
Nevertheless, the main point remains the same, and it’s that West Bengal is the bottleneck for India’s commercial and real-sector economic engagement with mainland ASEAN, and the state functions as the vital gateway to both the Trilateral Highway and troubled Northeastern States. India’s “Act East” strategy is naturally dependent on stability in this irreplaceable transit territory, which translates in practical terms to giving Kolkata an advantage in its political disputes with New Delhi, whereby the center feels compelled in conceding to some of the periphery’s proposals so as to safeguard the viability of this corridor. There’s a major risk, however, that if this prerogative is wielded irresponsibly by West Bengal or militantly overreacted to by the central authorities, that it could unwittingly spark the country’s political-administrative unravelling, which is why all well-intentioned actors must tread extra cautiously so as to avoid any inadvertent consequences.