India’s 'Neigbourhood First' Policy

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Now that India’s seven-phase general election schedule is announced for April-June, it would be in the fitness of things to toss up the topic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood policy. This is especially so against the background of anticipation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s third consecutive victory. Political analysts within and outside the world’s most populous and largest multiparty democracy expect Modi to lead his party to triumph once again. Foreign media with comparatively wide reach have since last autumn given high chances for the BJP win. Ten years in power, the Modi government’s neighbours-first policy remains an enigma at best and faltering at some level in some instances. 

Analysts anywhere verify claims and public postures by governments and leaders only after monitoring events and developments. In May 2014, leaders of the rest of the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) accepted the newly elected Indian Prime Minister’s inauguration, which was the first occasion when heads of all SAARC members attended an oath-taking ceremony in a fellow member state. The Indian media hailed the event as a “major” diplomatic event that promised yet closer ties a higher degree of cooperation among SAARC members. Modi described the initiative as “the right decision at the right time”.

Call for review

Should Modi carve an electoral hat trick, his team would do well to make renewed efforts for accelerating his neighbourhood-first policy that had raised much expectations and excitement a decade ago. A new term offers the incumbent head of government an appropriate opportunity to give a fillip in real earnest for conducting of neighbourhood approach to a more significant height. A major military power possessing nuclear weapons, India’s desire to become an influential international player aspiring for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council is nothing new. Its prospects would deepen with pragmatic efforts at building and maximising working rapport with its neighbours in South Asia and adjoining areas, including Myanmar and China. The review should assess the level of India’s ties with the neighbours today as compared to conditions ten years ago.

Afghanistan’s Taliban government for two years is inching cautiously in conducting relations with the rest of the region and beyond, including with Iran and Russia. It apparently is assessing the situation in the changing power equations in world order. Its neighbours China and Russia are superpowers whose initiatives and priorities in South Asia cannot be taken casually. India’s role in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971 needs no overemphasis. Bangladesh’s founding father and first elected Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was profusely appreciative of New Delhi’s extensive support. His daughter Hasina Wajed, prime minister from 1996 to 2001 and again since January 2009, had served as government head for a total of 20 years by the time she led her party to yet another victory in the January parliamentary elections. 

But mixed and, at times baffling, signals have emanated from Dhaka in recent years. Some commentators attribute new twists in Indo-Bangladesh relations to the next economic superpower No. 1 China’s proactive desire to expand its reach in its South Asian neighbourhood. Bhutan, with which India has a unique treaty, eyes more visible space and pace in its foreign policy approach, eventually diversifying development priorities. Thimpu’s push for settling its border dispute with China was indicated by the memorandum of understanding reached with Beijing last year — a development that made governments sit up with extra attention.     

An archipelago state in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is not only the smallest in terms of territory but also population among South Asian states. The newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu had pledged during his election campaign in September to send back foreign troops from his country of exclusively Sunni Muslim population of 520,000. Seen as “pro-China”, by the Indo-West lobby, the president made his intention public as soon as he was sworn into office, having defeated “pro-India” incumbent President Ibrahim Solih in second round-off 54-46 per cent of votes.   

Some foreign policy commentators and retired employees of the Indian government complain about “increasing” Chinese presence in Nepal despite their country having made large investments in the landlocked neighbour for more than 70 years. At the same time, some sections in Nepal are perturbed over the inordinate delay involved in arranging for a formal handover of a report completed in September 2018 by the Eminent Persons Group composed of Nepali and Indian representatives. 

The chill in Indo-Pakistan ties is a major cause of the long delay in in holding the SAARC summit. Pakistan was to host the 19th summit in 2016, only to be in a state of limbo after India held Islamabad responsible for Uri terror attack two months before the summit and decided to boycott the conference. Under the tense circumstances, other member states saw no meaning in attending a gathering. Pragmatism demanded that deferment would leave the embers of hope for the regional organisation to get reactivated and gather steam when better climes returned. 

Relations between Sri Lanka and India took a new twist since the 1970s when ethnic Tamil rebels took to arms and sought a separate “Tamil Eelam” in the North-East of the island nation separated by the Palk Strait from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In 1987, about 100,000 Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived in the North-East, only to be subsequently pressed by both Colombo and the insurgents for the withdrawal of “all foreign troops” from their land. Embarrassed, New Delhi recalled it troops in 1990 after the Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress party lost the November 1989 elections and a coalition cabinet headed by VP Singh was in office. 

Common interest

Particularly in the last decade, commentators and political party activists have criticised and expressed concern over Colombo sidelining New Delhi on a number of common interests that had bonded the two South Asian neighbours quite firmly for decades. Apart from South Asian neighbours, India shares a long border with China up north. The long-standing Sino-Indian border dispute and recent border clashes have brought their differences back to the open again. 

After the impending elections are over, Modi might like to take a candid stock of the prevailing conditions and work on a new plan for the general benefit of this part of the world, including India’s as well as China’s.

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)

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