On journey to its ‘tryst with destiny’ to be a major global player, India faces many hurdles, including challenging neighbours. One of the foremost imperatives for being a major player at the international stage is the domestic strength determined by economic and political power based in social cohesion and domestic peace. The other equally necessary requirement is a peaceful and friendly nighbourhood.
When the BJP-led NDA government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power securing a huge popular mandate three years ago, there was a big hope that the country’s neighbourhood policy will be framed and executed in a manner that will create favourable conditions for India’s rise at the international stage.
Initial moves of the new government were very positive. Even before Modi had formally assumed charge on May 26, 2014, he had made it loud and clear that his government’s foreign policy would focus on improving ties with neighbours. “The BJP believes that political stability, progress, and peace in the region are essential for South Asia’s growth and development,” the party’s manifesto for 2014 Lok Sabha election had stated elaborating that the Congress-led UPA “has failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours.”
Decrying the UPA’s policy, the manifesto further pointed out: “India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold; India and its neighbours have drifted apart; the absence of statecraft has never been felt so acutely as today.”
The policy was amply demonstrated when the heads of the state or chief executives of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were invited to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony at the forecourts of Rashtrapati Bhavan.Scholars, seasoned experts and senior observers, including veteran diplomats, christened the new approach to the neighbours as ‘Neighbourhood First’. The initial steps by the new government were seen as giving due priority to countries of immediate neighbourhood and extended neighbourhood. The policy aimed at taking a wholesome integrated approach to South Asia. It was adopted in full knowledge that if India is able to strike friendly and cooperative relations in its geo-strategic region, then its international standing and reputation would rise.
Now that the Modi government has been in power for little over three years, a dispassionate look at the outcome of the stated policy is unfortunately not very encouraging if not totally disappointing as relations with majority of countries in the immediate and extended neighbourhood, barring a few exceptions such as Bangladesh and Bhutan, have not grown on expected lines.
To begin with, relations with China, India’s biggest neighbour sharing 3,488 km-long common border, have been on a downward slope since Modi’s first visit to Japan in August-September 2014 and his swipe at Beijing. Speaking to a gathering, he had said, “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind set: encroaching on another country, intruding others’ water, invading other countries and capturing territory.”
Currently, India-China ties are at its lowest ebb. The longest standoff in recent years in the strategically important Dolam region—the trijunction of India-Bhutan-China—continues with the armies of the two biggest neighbours in South Asia confronting each other.
Notwithstanding New Delhi’s pronouncement that diplomatic channels are being used to diffuse the situation, prospects of an early breakthrough seems bleak because China’s foray into the Dolam plateau is Beijing’s well-calculated move to destabilise the situation with an eye to weaken India’s traditionally strong ties with Bhutan.
China is testing waters whether it can succeed in decoupling Bhutan from India. Even Thimphu is keeping its fingers crossed waiting to see the outcome of the present standoff. Bhutan may decide to rebalance its traditional position vis-a-vis India if China gains an upper hand. Ties with Pakistan are in limbo with the prospects of the bilateral dialogue resuming in near future not very bright. Closer and constantly growing ties between Pakistan and China are making India’s task more complex and posing major challenge to New Delhi not only at global forums, but also in countries such as Afghanistan and central Asia.
Indo-Nepal relation, despite the two countries having open borders, has become a victim of confusion with New Delhi remaining indecisive about whether to remain neutral or play a hegemonic role. In an effort to back the Madhesi demand, New Delhi abandoned its policy of neutrality that had helped India to play the role of a mediator in the past.
Bilateral ties with Maldives are in pits as India’s policy is facing a serious challenge from China, Pakistan and Islamic forces. New Delhi’s policy of firmly standing with former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed had limited its policy options with very little room to manoeuvre out of the complex situation.Relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have improved. The Modi government has further consolidated ties with Dhaka. The change of government in Sri Lanka provided an opening and India moved ahead. Colombo has been rebalancing its ties with India and decreasing its over-dependence on China.
Coming to power, the National League of Democracy led by Aung Suu Kyi in Myanmar had aroused the expectations of a total turn-around in bilateral ties. Ties are improving with Myanmar showing interest in Indian investments, but much would depend upon New Delhi’s ability to keep its promises and in implementing its projects on ground.‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has failed to deliver desired objectives possibly because it was not thoroughly thought-through resulting in knee jerk reactions from South Block in times of serious challenges.
Dr Satish Misra Senior Fellow at Delhi-based think-tank, Observer Research Foundation