India’s Polls And 'Neighbour First' Policy

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When Lok Sabha elections were taking place in India, the political eco-chambers of South Asian capitals were filled with concerns and consolations about whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win the majority and, if so, whether it would give continuity to its much publicised “Neighbourhood First Policy” towards its close neighbours. Now that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won the elections and Narendra Modi has taken over the reins of the government as the leader of the coalition, it will be reasonable to assess her foreign policy challenges beyond the polls.

For any country foreign policy is a crucial domain of governance. It is more so for India which has the challenge to cope with a complex group of neighbours who share different expectations, grievances and frustrations. The ruling coalition, therefore, is likely to face significant challenge not only in the field of domestic economic reforms but also in the realm of foreign policy priorities.

Consistency 

From the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, through Indira Ghandhi, I. K. Gujral and Narendra Modi, India has adopted fairly a consistent foreign policy governing her relation with neighbouring countries. Nehru, India’s first prime minister and one of the founders of the non-aligned movement, is credited to have laid the foundation of Indian foreign policy. During his tenure, the non-alignment, support for independence movements and Pan-Asian solidarity was the cornerstone of Indian foreign policy. The vision of non-alignment was then projected as an alternative to the bipolar world order marked by the rivalry between the USA and the then USSR. 

During the tenure of Nehru, Nepal was negotiating a slippery path of transition to democracy after overthrowing Rana oligarchy, largely with the Indian assistance. India’s relation with Nepal was more or less on an even keel despite occasional differences on Nepal’s exercise of sovereignty and India’s interpretation of her frontier security jurisdiction beyond her northern borders. Despite differences, Nehru recognised Nepal’s concern for its sovereignty and accorded priority to India’s relation to Nepal.

After the end of Neruvian era, Indira Gandhi took over the mantle of leadership. Her foreign policy was marked more by realism than by Neruvian idealism.  Her tenure saw many historical turn of events. Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan in 1971 and Sikkim was annexed into India on 16 May 1975. India signed Treaty of Friendship and Peace with Soviet on August 9, 1971. For the first time in post-independence history, Indira Gandhi tried to project India as a regional power with a role to play in the regional geopolitics. During that period, Nepal-India’s relation maintained a more or less stable course with occasional friction between the ruling dynasties of the two countries. 

I. K. Gujral’s tenure was a period of unique experiment in India’s foreign policy with smaller neighnours. Gujral stood out in the crowd of foreign policy experts who advocated more assertive foreign policy posture with neigbours. He formulated what was later widely known as the Gujral Doctrine. When Gujral became prime minister, his doctrine was further elucidated and effort was made to try its implementation though with little success. This doctrine emphasised on unilateral accommodation of the interest of smaller neighbours without seeking reciprocity. It focused on friendship and trust which constituted a shift to a more supportive and magnanimous neighborhood policy. 

During the tenure of Gujral, relation with neighbouring countries significantly improved. The tricky issue of water sharing with Bangladesh was resolved by signing Ganges Water Sharing Agreement in 1996 and the after effects of India’s economic blockade against Nepal was also normalised on the basis of his conciliatory doctrine. During his tenure, India supported Norway-initiated peace process to end the festering conflict between Sri Lankan Government and LTTE. Gujral also took significant initiative to improve trust with Pakistan.

Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014 marks a watershed in the evolution of India’s foreign policy. To the astonishment of the world, India announced Act East Policy in 2014, evincing her strategic ambition to expand her sphere of influence to Asia-Pacific (now Indo-Pacific) region and South East Asia. This policy was the continuation of its less propagated Look East Policy formulated in the 1990s. The objective of Act East Policy was to promote economic integration with the ASEAN and South Asian countries, strengthen security and stability of Asia-Pacific region, enhance connectivity, and stimulate infrastructure building and position India as a regional power.

Narendra Modi’s decision to appoint Subramanyam Jayashankar in the position of Foreign minister, proved to be game changing initiative providing India’s foreign policy a new dynamism. Under his leadership, India positioned herself as a major player in the regional and global politics. Over the past few years, India has freed herself from the clout of European powers telling them in no uncertain terms that India would write her own foreign policy discourse without taking dictation from any side and in India’s best interest. Under his leadership, India has been navigating present day complex geopolitical landscape with confidence and diplomatic maturity. 

Strategic partnership

India’s deepening strategic partnership with the US and expanding commercial interaction with Russia are, however, two contradictory realities which India might find difficult to confront as geopolitical surface harden in the days to come.  The decision of the newly formed coalition government to re-induct Jayashankar as the foreign minister signifies commitment to the continuity of India’s’ “Neighborhood First Policy”. In recent years India has taken historic initiative in resolving border problem with Bangladesh and has garnered goodwill from Sri Lanka by assisting it when it was going through the severest economic crisis in its entire postcolonial history. 

Similarly, India is also doing her best to mend fences with the Maldives after a period of tension between the two countries. In this context, it is reasonable to anticipate that India, as  an emerging regional superpower, will also address differences with Nepal on issues of border  delimitation, transit to sea, cross border trade, mutually beneficial power trade and grid connectivity. Successfully addressing these issues would validate “Neighbourhood First Policy” as a tested policy approach to international diplomacy.

(The author is former chairperson of Gorkhapatra Corporation and former ambassador of Nepal to Qatar.)

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