When Narendra Modi took oath as the 14th Indian Prime Minister in May 2014, he made an unprecedented diplomatic outreach to India’s neighbours by inviting their heads of government. The audacious move generated great euphoria and excitement, especially among the observers of South Asian politics and relations. It was the very first initiative of what later came to be known as the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy of the Modi government.
The day after his inauguration, Modi held bilateral meetings with the South Asian leaders and vowed to work towards making SAARC a strong regional block. He soon made his first foreign visit as Prime Minister to Bhutan, the Himalayan neighbour that has been India’s closest and time-tested ally. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj too, made her first official foreign visit in the neighbourhood, to Bangladesh, where she laid the foundation for Modi’s visit that followed later on.
The diplomatic priority that Modi attached to the neighbourhood is evident from the fact he made a visit to all of India’s neighbours, except Maldives, and the numerous leaders hosted in New Delhi and meetings at other multilateral fora. With Bangladesh, the completion of the historic land boundary agreement, besides fresh initiatives in energy, connectivity and counter-terrorism, have catapulted the relationship to new heights. With Sri Lanka, the relationship has come back to normalcy after increased strain in ties during the Rajapaksa regime. Modi also made visits to the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles, giving an impetus to India’s role as ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region.
According to foreign affairs analyst Dhruva Jaishankar, India’s neighbourhood first policy has four aspects. The willingness to give political and diplomatic priority to its immediate neighbours and Indian Ocean island states, providing them with support as needed, greater connectivity and integration, and to promote a model of India-led regionalism with which its neighbours are comfortable. Modi realises that his domestic agenda of development and rapid economic growth cannot be fulfilledwithout a stable and conducive neighbourhood. He has often emphasised that India cannot grow in isolation and that there is a lot to gain by mutual cooperation and shared prosperity in the region.
Besides the compelling economic logic, Modi is also watchful about growing Chinese penetration into South Asia. While Chinese presence in the region is not entirely avoidable or undesirable by India, there are some pressing strategic concerns that New Delhi has. China has been steadily building infrastructure, especially ports, at strategic locations around India which is often calledas the strategy of encirclement or ‘string of pearls’. Ithas made deep inroads into most of India’s neighbours, besides emerging as an all-weather friend of Pakistan.
The proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor, where Beijing plans to invest $46 billion in rail, road and gas pipeline projects, has raised concerns in India as it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, a territory that India considers as its own. This issue also came up in the most recent round of strategic dialogue held in Beijing, where Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar conveyed that China should respect India’s territorial sovereignty.
Further, the region as a whole ought to be wary of increased Chinese involvement as it could undermine the process of democratization in the delicate and mostly fledgling democracies of South Asia. India has always been at the receiving end of parochialnationalistic politics of some of its neighbours which derive strength from anti-India rhetoric. All countries, including India, would benefit if this is replaced by an atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation where developmental politics takes the centre-stage. But China has no sympathy either for democracy or developmental politics. As S.D. Muni, an expert of South Asian affairs, opines, China prefers strong, assertive and centralised regimes at its periphery. This is evident from the fact that China never supported or encouraged democratization in any of its neighbours.
While the last two and half years and more have seen a number of ground breaking developments in India’s relations with its neighbouring countries, there have been huge challenges at the same time. Modi’s visit to Nepal, first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in over two decades, was received with huge fanfare and optimism. India was also the first responder after the Nepal earthquake, providing considerable assistance. Yet, Nepal’s constitutional crisis caused a serious setback in relations with India. Although New Delhi’s stance, that the interests of the Madhesis should be respected in the new Constitution, was in the best interest of both Nepal and India, there was a serious perception problem. India was criticised and accused of causing an economic blockade even though the blockade was actually on the Nepalese side of the border, enforced by the angry Madhesi population. Relations between India and Nepal, however, seem to have gotten back on track with the new government, led by Prime Minister Pushpa KamalDahal or ‘Prachanda’, in Kathmandu.
The biggest roadblock for India’s neighbourhood policy, however,has been Pakistan, a country which is not only serving as an epicentre of terrorism in the region but has also been quite unabashed in holding up regional integration and connectivity. Repeated cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan led to the cancellation of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad last year, besides causing a meltdown of Indo-Pakistan relations.
These challenges, however, should not distract New Delhifrom pursuing its agenda of greater regional integration and cooperation. The idea of ‘neighbourhood first’ need not include an errant neighbour like Pakistan, which can be dealt with separately. Even though SAARC has hit a roadblock, there are other institutional mechanisms such as the BIMSTEC, Mekong Ganga cooperation mechanism, etc. where India can engage multilaterally. Even within the SAARC framework, India has been working on a ‘SAARC minus one’ approach. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping has been one such example under which connectivity, energy and water management initiatives have been pursued. The common SAARC Satellite, which India has decided to go ahead with despite Pakistan’s objections, is another case in point.
The neighbourhood first policy has been one of India’s key foreign policy goals under the Modi government. Itneeds to march on, with or without Pakistan. Political engagement with the neighbours must continue to be prioritised in order to accelerate regional cooperation and integration which is the best interest of the region.