05/22/2014 03:28 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

Regional Integration: A Foreign Policy Priority for Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi, India's next prime minister, stormed into power this month with a decisive mandate and a resounding victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, accompanying that victory are challenges and the expectations of Indians who have put aside Modi's Hindu-centric politics in a desire for a strong leader to address challenges that India currently faces. One of those challenges will be regional integration.

Regional integration in South Asia has been consistently articulated by the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party. However, the job is half done, and BJP now has the opportunity to make real progress. Improving relationships with neighbors, particularly in terms of trade and infrastructure connectivity, could well be BJP's accomplishment toward integrating South Asia.

The BJP election manifesto mentions the need for peace, prosperity, and political stability in order to achieve growth and development in South Asia. A peaceful, stable and an economically prosperous neighborhood will be in India's best interests. Integrating South Asia will not only provide India a boost to its economic recovery but also will increase its political capital among its immediate neighbors and add to India's credence about its willingness to play a greater role on the world stage.

South Asia is home to the world's largest and most populous region. It covers almost 25 million square kilometers and houses about 55 percent of the world's population. It is also one of the least integrated regions in the world in terms of regional or cross-border infrastructure such as transport, energy and trade. South Asia also possesses three characteristics that very few regions around the world possess. First, it has highest population density in the world and a very young population -- the median age is 26. Second, it is a region of numerous and overlapping ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. Finally, many major cities in South Asia are geographically close to international borders, making it easier to trade.

Some of these factors undoubtedly bode well for regional integration and stability in South Asia. However, it is not an easy task given the substantial political obstacles. Textiles, automobiles, information technology are some of the sectors, which have a huge potential for cross border trade. However, obstacles such as visa regimes impede this growth.

India-Pakistan trade and business has been the victim of the political rivalry between the now two nuclear-armed neighbors. The biggest benefactors of the lack of trade normalization are transit trade points, such as Dubai, through which trade is conducted. Infrastructure constraints, lack of transit access facilities, limitations on items that can be traded have all been important factors that have contributed to this state of play. An average flying time between Islamabad and Delhi, for example, is approximately 8 hours because of lack of direct flights.

India's relations with Sri Lanka are slightly better. The Indian government recently abstained from a US-sponsored resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka to accommodate Tamil sentiments. Over the years, the Indian government has been maintaining a steady relationship with the Sri Lankan government and thus gaining geopolitical overtures with Rajapaksa's government, which is bound to stay for the foreseeable future. Doing this has also caused friction within India, as individual states have sometimes adopted a narrow provincialist view.

Afghanistan presents Indian policymakers with a serious challenge in the immediate future. The US withdrawal by the end of 2014 accompanied by a steady deterioration in the security situation poses a difficult problem for Indian policy makers. Indian policymakers' choice to enlarge its economic presence in Afghanistan is a welcome step but a difficult one because of the security concerns. Additionally, India's role in training Afghan forces has attracted negative attention from Pakistan but something India has been able to compensate by fostering greater economic ties.
Since assuming power in 2009, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, has desired a better relationship with India. Hasina initiated war crimes trial against individuals who allegedly collaborated with the Pakistani army during the country's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. India for its part, worked hard to conclude a water-sharing agreement on the Teesta River, thus signaling its desire to improve relations with Bangladesh.

Finally, the experiences in the recent past with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have taught Indian political masters at the center an important lesson: according greater weight and voice to the state capitals. As one Congress leader put it to me, "views between the center and the State have to coincide for more effective policymaking."

As Modi recently said in Ahmedabad, "The only solution to every problem is development. Without that India's destiny will not change." The road to achieving this objective lies through peace and stability in India's immediate neighborhood, and Modi would be well advised to carry this forward as it has the potential to become one of his prized foreign policy accomplishments.