Last week's historic accord with Bangladesh erased a dispute as old as Kashmir while nudging the subcontinent towards a common market.Trade and investment have been the refreshing focus of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's diplomacy. He understands instinctively that power emanates from a bowl of rice, not from the barrel of a gun. In this respect, he is following an ancient tradition that once made India a great trading nation that carried its amazing soft power on merchant ships.
Although the land boundary agreement was the most visible victory during Modi's visit, other accords were equally significant. Indian goods travel via Singapore to reach Bangladesh in three weeks; now they will go directly to Bangladeshi ports in a week. Indian companies will sell electricity and make goods in special economic zones across the border, creating masses of jobs while helping reduce Bangladesh's trade deficit. The accord signals to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan the benefits of moving from the politics of suspicion to the economics of prosperity.
If you had stood at the famous port of Muziris in Kerala 2,000 years ago, you would see a ship arriving laden with gold. Every day a ship from the Roman Empire landed in a South Indian port where it picked up fine Indian cottons, spices, and luxuries. But Indians did not care for what the Romans brought, and since accounts had to be settled, they were settled with gold and silver. Back home, Roman senators grumbled that their women used too many Indian luxuries, spices and fine cottons and two-thirds of Rome's bullion was being lost to India. One South Indian king even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the empire's balance of payments problems.