Narendra Modi is looking eastward, and it’s a big and important story that most newspapers outside of India are missing.This week Modi kicked off a three-day trip to India’s northeastern region, where he announced a host of development programs to boost the local economy. Also during his visit, he dedicated a power station that will export electricity to neighboring Bangladesh. Modi is pushing for greater economic ties between the two countries, and this week voiced support for a resolution to their border dispute that would include land swaps—a marked turn away from the BJP’s opposition to the plan, which was proposed by Modi’s predecessor.As part of his “Look East” program, Modi has also made a point of reaching out to Burma. Most recently, he had a warm meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at a recent ASEAN get-together. India is investing in a number of large-scale infrastructure projects that will bolster trade with Burma, including a project that will link Calcutta to a Burmese port.Modi has his work cut out for him with this eastern initiative given the region’s history. Northeast India (the bits on both sides of Bangladesh, including Assam and other small states in the cut-off bit of India that borders China and Burma) and West Bengal were the hardest hit by partition and the politics of the 1950s. Before partition, Bangladesh, Burma and northeast India were all part of a single big trading area. Partition shut down relations between Bangladesh (part of Pakistan until the 1971 war) and the Indian state of West Bengal.Furthermore, a procession of previous Congress governments had shifted investment away from Calcutta, a city founded by the British, and long a major British commercial and administrative center, to Delhi and the west. Things got worse as Burmese nationalist expelled Indian traders and settlers who had moved there in many cases long before the British Raj. Calcutta became something of a backwater, deprived of its natural trading hinterlands, and the far northeast was cut off between a hostile Pakistan, a hostile China with land claims, and a hostile, closed Burma.Meanwhile, the region is full of “tribal” peoples who aren’t Hindu in many cases (many converts to Christianity live in this part of India), who resent Muslim immigration from impoverished Bangladesh, and who are related to the various tribal peoples in Burma and China.But the tectonic plates are clearly shifting. Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan, with Indian support, lowered the tensions, but hasn’t done away with them entirely. Close India-Bangladesh relations are really necessary both to revitalize the region and to allow India to develop a more effective territorial defense against Chinese claims. This appears to be primarily what Modi is working on.His opening to Burma stirs the pot as well. Some of it is in good ways: there are huge opportunities for trade and investment and for developing a regional network like the one that existed in British times. But the bad ways include the flows of arms, fighters and migrants across a newly opened frontier: India faces some tricky insurgency problems in the region, and many of the tribes are deeply alienated from Delhi. China could well use these realities to cause trouble of its own.Regardless, there is a clear advantage for Modi and India if he can sort all this out. Promoting deep trade links with Bangladesh, deepening connections with Burma, and turning one of India’s most backward and insecure regions into a bustling success would be a masterstroke. Whether he pulls it off will play a large part in determining his legacy.