November 1, 2021

Neighbourhood Policy of Modi Government: Challenges and Opportunities

Written By: Ashok Sajjanhar

India has shared close civilisational bonds with its neighbours over the last several centuries. For several extended periods of time in Indias history, the vast swathe of land from Afghanistan in the West to Myanmar in the East was a part of Indian territory. The intimate ties of culture, history, language, attire, cuisine, traditions and faiths have however not been sufficient to ensure friendly and peaceful relations between India and its neighbours. On the contrary, many of these factors have been used at times by Indias neighbours to emphasise their uniqueness and individual identities as being separate from India.

The challenges that confronted Prime Minister Modi when he first took charge of the reins of the Government on 26th May, 2014 were formidable and daunting. It was presumed by political analysts and commentators that since PM Modis exposure to the realm of diplomacy and foreign affairs was limited, management of Indias foreign relations would be the weakest suite in his governance. However, he surprised his staunchest critics and began strongly by inviting Heads of State/Government of all SAARC countries and the Prime Minister of Mauritius to his swearing-in ceremony. All the invited leaders responded promptly and positively to the Invitation, except for Pakistan whose Prime Minister took a little longer to confirm. The presence of all SAARC leaders at this ceremonial event and at the bilateral deliberations between PM Modi and the visiting dignitaries on 27th May, 2014, launched the current government’s “Neighbourhood First” policy to an inspiring start. 

It needs to be recognised that most countries in the world have difficult, if not outright adversarial relations with their neighbours. This is particularly true of large countries and has been visible in the context of relations between USA-Canada, USA-Mexico, France-Germany, Germany-Italy, France-UK, Brazil-Argentina and several more. Kautilya had propounded in his Mandala Theory of Inter-State relations around 300 BCE: “A States neighbour is its natural enemy, and its neighbours neighbour is its friend”. Although exceptions to this postulate exist, its basic thrust continues to be relevant and valid in several cases even today. 

In the SAARC, India accounts for around 80% of the total land area, GDP, wealth, trade, FDI, industrial and agricultural production etc of this configuration. India hence occupies a pre-eminent and dominant position in this structure. India is the only country that shares borders with all other SAARC member countries, either land or maritime, and none of the other countries shares a border with any other member except between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Since Indias independence, there has been a huge trust deficit between India and its neighbours who consider that India flaunts a “Big Brother” attitude towards its smaller neighbours. There is also a pervasive impression that barring Pakistan, India does not devote enough time and attention to solving problems or strengthening relations with other neighbours. Even projects beneficial to smaller countries are looked upon with suspicion and scepticism, as if India has a hidden agenda favouring itself while promoting those initiatives.

To promote confidence and trust, PM Modi announced immediately after assuming charge that relations with neighbours would be given primacy in formulation and implementation of his Governments foreign policy. He followed up this pronouncement by selecting Bhutan for his first visit. This decision was taken to further cement and consolidate this special relationship,” particularly in the wake of a concerted push by China to establish diplomatic ties with Bhutan and settle its borders to the detriment of Indias interests. India is Bhutans strongest partner, with cooperation ranging from construction of infrastructure, power plants, roads and cement plants to education and health. Addressing the Bhutanese Parliament on June 16, 2014, PM Modi said: “The stronger India will be, the better it is for Bhutan and other SAARC nations. A strong and stable India is needed so that we can help our neighbours’’. 

Indias relations with Bhutan have continued to expand over the last seven years since the advent of the first Modi government. Indias staunch support for Bhutans territorial integrity was emphatically demonstrated during the Doklam crisis in 2017, which witnessed a 73-day eyeball-to-eyeball showdown between the Indian and Chinese forces on Bhutanese territory. This sent out a strong message, not only to Bhutan but to all countries in the neighbourhood and beyond, that India will stand steadfast in protecting its own strategic interests and those of its neighbours in the face of unprovoked hostility from China.

Bhutan became the first country to receive a gratis consignment of 1.5 lakh doses of Made in India’ COVID-19 vaccines on 20th January, within days after India launched its own vaccination drive on 16th January, 2021. Following the delivery, Bhutan’s PM, Dr Lotay Tshering said that it is a gift from a ‘trusted friend’ who has been with Bhutan all through the decades and in this pandemic too. He stated that “we applaud the gesture that signifies the compassion and generosity of the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, and the people of India for the wellbeing of the humanity.” During the coronavirus outbreak, India handed over ten consignments of medical supplies, portable X-Ray machine, essential medicines and medical equipment to Bhutan. Prior to the vaccine delivery, India also organised a training programme for immunisation managers, cold chain officers, communication officers and data managers from Bhutan, both at national and provincial levels.

In his pronouncements on his visits, PM Modi has sought to make Indias neighbours active partners and stakeholders in its development and prosperity, encouraging them to take full advantage of Indias successes. This was the theme of his next visit in the Region to Nepal in August, 2014, which turned out to be the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister to this vital country after a long gap of 17 years. This sought to remove the impression of being neglected and taken for granted that had long been held by the people and leadership of this country. During his visit, PM Modi announced that India would like to work towards making Nepal a developed country by harnessing its resources to produce hydro-electric power and also purchasing it from Nepal at market prices to meet the growing energy demand in India.

Soon after the visit, the Indian Government responded with exemplary swiftness to provide relief and medical care to the victims of the horrendous 7.9 Richter intensity earthquake that struck Nepal on 25th April, 2015 causing countless deaths and huge destruction. The beneficial impact of this commendable government action however got diluted somewhat due to the intrusive and insensitive reporting on this tragedy by some Indian TV channels.

PM Modis first visit to Nepal was preceded by the visit of EAM Sushma Swaraj for the meeting of the Joint Economic Commission which was convened after a gap of 23 years. PM Modi made a second visit to Kathmandu in November 2014 to participate in the SAARC Summit. Significant forward movement in bilateral ties was visible as long pending agreements on power generation and trading were signed between private companies of the two countries. 

Relations with Nepal hit a road block in 2015 when months-long demonstrations and protests were launched by the Madhesi community of Nepal against the newly adopted Constitution as their demands for greater representation were ignored. This forced a blockade of vehicular movement from India into Nepal delivering a shock to the Nepalese economy which the KP Sharma Oli government projected as a wilful act of hostility by India. Subsequently, other issues were created by the Oli government, new maps drawn up in May 2020 and the Nepalese Constitution amended to show the Indian territories of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani as belonging to Nepal. This move by PM Oli was seen as an attempt to resort to hyper-nationalism as Oli was facing pressure from within his own party to resign because of his incompetence in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, economic decline, corruption etc.

India tried to stabilise bilateral ties by deputing Foreign Secretary, the Army Chief and other senior officials of the government to undertake bilateral visits to Nepal. The manoeuvres by Oli yielded only temporary advantage to him. He was forced by the Nepalese Supreme Court to resign in July 2021 and hand over power to Sher Bahadur Deuba. Deubas first visit to Delhi in August 2021 after assuming power has sought to stabilise and provide a fillip to bilateral ties. In keeping with its Neighbourhood First Policy, India supplied 1 million doses of the Covishield vaccine gratis to Nepal on 21st January, 2021. Further supplies were stopped temporarily on account of the second wave in India but are to be resumed shortly as Indias production has grown significantly.

PM Modi has sought to improve relations with Pakistan also. He demonstrated this not only through words but more importantly through action by inviting Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to his first swearing-in ceremony. Relations with Pakistan thus got off to a positive and encouraging start at the beginning of PM Modis first tenure. This however did not stop him from calling off the Foreign Secretary level talks in August 2014 as the Pakistan High Commissioner went ahead with his meeting with the Kashmiri separatists in spite of having been advised by the Indian Foreign Office to desist from doing so. Addressing the General Assembly Session of the United Nations in New York on 27th Sept, 2014, PM Modi said: “India desires a peaceful and stable environment for its development. That is why my Government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her neighbours. This includes Pakistan. I am prepared to engage in a serious bilateral dialogue with Pakistan in a peaceful atmosphere without the shadow of terrorism to promote our friendship and cooperation.”

Indias initiatives to improve relations with Pakistan did not meet with a positive response. Pakistan resorted to increased firing and shelling from across Indias borders and continued to mastermind and support terrorist attacks on Indian territory. The Indian Government decided that all attacks will be responded to with even greater force so that Pakistan is made to feel the pain and is punished for its actions. India has also decided that notwithstanding Pakistans obstructionist approach to promoting social, economic, commercial and cultural cooperation amongst SAARC countries, India will continue to take new initiatives for enhancing regional and sub-regional cooperation, either with or without the presence of and engagement of Pakistan. In this context, India started placing greater emphasis on cooperation in the sub-regional groups comprising of Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) whose members include Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. 

PM Modi sought to normalise relations with Pakistan by agreeing on a bilateral dialogue on terrorism in their informal meeting in Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia, on the sidelines of the BRICS/SCO Summit in July 2015. The then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif could however not deliver on this commitment. PM Modi again reached out to Sharif at the Paris Climate Meet in November 2015, and also paid an unscheduled, brief visit to Sharifs private home at Raiwind, near Lahore, to attend Sharifs grand-daughters wedding, on his way back from Kabul on 25th December, 2015.  These initiatives to normalise relations by PM Modi were met by terror attacks in Pathankot on 1stJanuary, 2016 and in Uri in September 2016. This proved to be the breaking point as far as PM Modis engagement policy with Pakistan is concerned. He declared that talks and terror will not go together and broke off all dialogue with Pakistan. A surgical strike was launched on 28th September, 2016 which inflicted severe damage to Pakistans terrorist infrastructure. The Pulwama terrorist action in February 2019 leading to the death of 44 CRPF personnel resulted in the Balakot air strike, deep within Pakistan and caused heavy damage to the terror base located there.

These two attacks well inside Pakistan also busted the bogey of nuclear blackmail threats that Pakistan establishment has been constantly making against India. A ceasefire has been in place since February 2021 but recent developments in Afghanistan with the Taliban assuming power on 15thAugust, 2021 have made the LOC and India-Pakistan border and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir more vulnerable to terrorist actions from across the border. The recent spate of killings and attacks on small-time businessmen and entrepreneurs in Kashmir from different parts of the country has created considerable anxiety in the minds of the people and administration of the Union Territory. There is growing demand by the people of the country that Pakistans perfidies should not go unpunished. The country could see some precipitate and decisive action against Pakistan in the coming weeks.

It needs to be recognised that in Pakistan, its policies relating to relations with India, USA and Afghanistan, and nuclear issues fall within the purview of the Pakistan Army and related agencies, and are outside the mandate of the civilian government. The Pakistan army is unlikely to agree to any measures to improve relations with India as it will directly impact the funding and financial resources it receives, subsequently lessening its standing and influence in the domestic power matrix. India will hence have to continue to live with the periodic shelling and incursions from across the border. It will also need to be ready to give a befitting response to these treacherous actions master-minded from across the border as it did in the case of Uri and Pulwama attacks.

PM Modis “Samudra Yatra” which inter alia took him to Sri Lanka in March, 2015, as the first bilateral visit by an Indian PM after a gap of 28 years, was a resounding success. He was able to reach out to all segments of local society and communities and emphasise Indias interest in the integrity, sovereignty, stability, security and prosperity of Sri Lanka. He became the first Indian prime minister to visit Jaffna, a city in the northern province that is still struggling to recover from decades of war between Tamil rebels and the central government. PM Modi made a strong appeal for empowerment of Sri Lankas Tamil minority. The change of Government in Colombo after elections in January 2015, and separate visits by Sri Lankan President and Foreign Minister, which were their first visits outside the country after assuming charge, set the stage for a productive bilateral visit by PM Modi. Discussions on some contentious issues like freedom of fishermen to fish in the Palk Straits, resettlement of the displaced Tamil refugees, up-gradation of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement to a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) were taken up.

PM Modis visits to Sri Lanka in 2015, 2017 and 2019 imparted a fresh impetus to the bilateral engagement. Election of Gotobaya Rajapaksa as President of the country in November 2019 was seen by India both as a challenge and an opportunity. PM Modi decided to focus on it as an opportunity and dispatched External Affairs Minster S. Jaishankar to reach Colombo a day after the swearing in ceremony of President Rajapaksa. He was the first foreign leader to visit Sri Lanka after the Presidential election. He conveyed PM Modi’s message of a partnership for peace, progress, prosperity and security. PM Modis message went on to assert that he had confidence that India-Sri Lanka relations would reach greater heights under Rajapaksa’s leadership. The last two years of the Rajapaksa Presidency have witnessed bilateral ties grow significantly. Sri Lankan President, PM, Foreign Minister and other senior officials made India the first port of their call after the elections.

President Rajapaksa has assured India that Sri Lanka will not allow its territory to be used for any activity that could pose a threat to India’s security. Recent visits by Indian Foreign Secretary and Indian Army Chief have further cemented ties and expanded understanding between the two countries. Inauguration of the Kushinagar International airport by PM Modi on 20th October, 2021 at which a plane-load of Sri Lankan monks and devotees were the first to land, has sent out a strong message of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

The then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited India from 27 to 29 April, 2015. It was a useful visit providing an opportunity to leaders of the two countries to have a comprehensive and face-to-face dialogue on the future trajectory of our partnership. There was considerable concern in some circles in India that Ghanis closeness to Pakistan and China would be at Indias expense. Ghani chose to visit India after having undertaken visits to Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, USA, UK and Iran. This was an indication of his priorities as far as Afghanistans foreign policy was concerned. PM Modi utilised the opportunity of Ghanis visit to underline and re-emphasise Indias strategic interest in ensuring a stable, secure, democratic, secular and prosperous Afghanistan. India has invested heavily to the tune of US$ 3 billion in the economic, social and physical infrastructure as well as in development of human resources in Afghanistan. India enjoys centuries old cultural and civilisational links with the Afghan people.

During the past seven years, India and Afghanistan have significantly expanded their cooperation in many sectors of development cooperation. India is engaged in executing more than 500 high impact community development projects in all the 34 provinces of the country. India was able to complete the Salma Dam/Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, which had been pending for many years as well as the parliament building. Both of these were dedicated to the people of Afghanistan and handed over by Prime Minister Modi during his visits in June, 2016 and December, 2015 respectively.

The recent takeover by the Taliban in Kabul has introduced great uncertainty and anxiety in India and several other countries in the region and beyond. The Taliban had been in contact with a number of governments in the neighbourhood through their political office in Doha. Taliban delegations also travelled to Russia, Iran, China and other countries to send out the message that it was a different entity from the one that had ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, that they were moderate, would be inclusive in their governance, would respect the rights of minorities and women, and would not follow the obscurantist policies of the 1990s. They have however not abided by their commitments. The caretaker government announced by the Taliban in early September 2021 is not inclusive, does not have any women and comprises of individuals who are proscribed by the UN and several countries and have bounties on their heads. There is worry around the world but particularly amongst Afghanistans neighbours, including India, that Afghan territory could be used as a staging ground for launching terror attacks against other countries. It is being speculated that increased violence and killings in the Kashmir Valley in recent weeks are a result of the Taliban victory in Kabul.

India has been speaking at all the international fora to apply pressure on the Taliban to safeguard the human rights of minorities and women, allow girls to go to school and not allow the Afghan territory to be used for terrorist actions. In parallel, India has also started a dialogue with the Taliban to make them aware of our interests and concerns and ensure that they are safeguarded. We have also conveyed our readiness to provide food, medicines and other emergency items to avert the human catastrophe building up in Afghanistan. Simultaneously India is in active contact with all the regional and global interlocutors like Russia, Iran, Central Asian countries, Qatar, Europe, USA and others to ensure that a common international policy is followed on the issue of dealing with the Taliban. India is also in touch with Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to promote connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia through Iran and the Chabahar port.

Indias relations with Bangladesh today are the friendliest and most fruitful than they have been at any time since 1975 when the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu was assassinated. The upswing in relations started when Sheikh Hasina assumed the mantle of the Head of Government in 2009 and won two terms subsequently. Bangladesh has helped and supported India to deal with insurgency that was earlier being promoted from Bangladesh territory. Bangladesh has apprehended and handed over Indian militants and extremists and closed all sources of funding, training and shipment of arms. India has generously supported Bangladeshs developmental efforts by extending financial aid for economic and infrastructure development and growth. Bilateral ties saw a significant spurt in trust and confidence between the two sides when the Indian Parliament unanimously passed the Land Boundary Agreement which had been pending ratification since the Indira-Mujib Pact was signed in 1974. PM Modi has continued the active and intense interaction with the Sheikh Hasina Government to mutual benefit and advantage. EAM Sushma Swaraj chose Dhaka to be her first destination after the Government was sworn in in 2014. This is a measure of the importance that the Modi Government attaches to its relations with Bangladesh. The first visit by Bangladesh President to India in December 2014 since the visit of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1974 was also testimony to the determination of PM Modi early in his tenure to further strengthen bilateral ties with this important neighbour. 

Relations between India and Maldives were tense and under stress ever since former President Mohammed Nasheed was removed from Office in 2012 and the contract of GMR to construct the Male Airport was terminated mid way. It was subsequently awarded to a Chinese Company. Maldives was be in a state of flux when PM Modi first assumed power. It was a matter of worry for India that not only was the Maldives under President Abdulla Yameen tilting perilously towards China by joining its Belt and Road Project but was also precipitously moving away from India. Tense bilateral relations however did not come in the way of India despatching large emergency supplies of drinking water to Maldives under Operation Neer in Dec, 2014 when the need arose on account of a huge fire in the Male Water and Sewerage Plant.

Matters took a turn for the better when Yameen lost in the election in 2018 and Ibrahim Solih emerged as the winner. PM Modi was the only foreign leader to be invited to the swearing in ceremony of President Solih in November 2018. The last two years have seen a sharp course-correction in the policies of the Maldives government. Relations between India and Maldives have strengthened and expanded. The strongest demonstration of this is the unstinted support extended by India to Abdulla Shahid, the foreign minister of Maldives for his election as President of the 76thSession of the UN General Assembly. Shahid won handsomely against a candidate propped up late in the race by China. Maldives has confirmed that it is committed to an “India First” policy.

India has supplied vaccines gratis to all its neighbours, except Pakistan from where there was no request for supply of the vaccines. These have been warmly welcomed by these countries and have significantly strengthened ties with these countries. For a few months, India was not able to export vaccines because of the devastating impact of the second wave. But it has re-started the exports to the neighbouring countries. This news has been received with great relief and satisfaction by all countries, particularly in Indias neighbourhood.

India launched the South Asian Satellite in 2017 to promote education, human resource development, entertainment, meteorological studies, telecommunications etc. in the neighbouring countries. Initiatives like this as well as enhanced development of human resources and skills inter alia through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme have gone a long way in promoting economic development and growth amongst Indias neighbours and invigorating relations with India.

Prime Minister Modi has used his clear-headed approach to reach out to countries in India’s neighbourhood, South East Asia and India’s strategic partners around the world to carve out stronger relations for promotion of its national interests and safeguarding its concerns. He has also used his communication skills most effectively to connect with India’s major partners and interlocutors all over the world, particularly in the neighbourhood. PM Modi has been bold, creative, resolute and steadfast in seeking better relations with the neighbours. It is a measure of the success of Indias “Neighbourhood First” policy that its relations with most countries of the neighbourhood are significantly better than they were when PM Modi took over the reins of power in 2014.

 Author Brief Bio: Shri Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, and has worked in diplomatic positions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok. He is currently the president of Institute of Global Studies in New Delhi.

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