Prime Minister Narendra Modi started off his foreign policy with the grand gesture of inviting the leaders of our South Asian neighbours -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan – to his swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in May 2014.
The message he intended to send out was loud and clear -- ‘Neighbourhood First’ – and seemed like a refreshing departure from an earlier era of an overbearing India and Indian diplomacy, something that the neighbours seemed to welcome. To buttress the message, he even chose the tiny, but invaluable, Himalayan nation of Bhutan for his first official foreign visit just a fortnight after becoming prime minister. The ‘Neighbourhood First’ message was reinforced at the start of Modi’s second term, too, with the first official visits taking him to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, too, underlined that the neighbourhood would continue to be the “first circle of priority” for New Delhi.
Yet, six months into Modi 2.0, the neighbourhood poses many challenges for Delhi. India’s troubles with Pakistan are long-standing and too well-known to bear recalling here, but consider what’s happening with our other, traditionally friendly, neighbours.
In October, Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for their second informal summit for two days at Mamallapuram, near Chennai. From Chennai, though, Xi flew to Kathmandu for a visit to Nepal, where China and India vie for geopolitical influence. Xi met Nepalese President Vidya Devi Bhandari and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and said: “China will always support Nepal in safeguarding its national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” New Delhi had to take note of his comment, which signalled China’s bid to project itself as a “net security provider” to Nepal, even the guarantor of its sovereignty, roles that traditionally -- and naturally -- India has played for long.
Weeks later, when the Modi government issued the new political map of India, meant to show the new status of J&K and Ladakh, the first to raise objection to the map was Kathmandu. Nepal objected that the map showed Kalapani – a disputed territory on the India-Nepal border near Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand – as part of India. Though New Delhi and Kathmandu have been holding talks to settle the boundary dispute, Oli struck a belligerent note and was quoted as saying that Nepal would not allow India to “encroach even one inch of its land”. He went on to say that India should withdraw its troops from the territory of Nepal. New Delhi suspects that China and Pakistan might have played a role in prodding Nepal to raise its pitch, to build a narrative blaming India for unilaterally changing the status quo in all disputed territories along its borders with its neighbours.
New Delhi is also concerned over the prospect of a renewed bid by China to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka, where Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been elected as the new president and his elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken over as the country’s new prime minister. The brothers are seen to be close to China. The second of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s two consecutive terms (2005-2015) as Sri Lankan president had seen China expanding its footprint in the island nation, causing much unease to India. He had ignored the security interests of India and let China build strategic assets on the island, apart from allowing two Chinese nuclear submarines to dock at the Colombo Port, raising hackles in New Delhi.
Moreover, the Rajapaksas returned to power in Sri Lanka riding on a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism that swept the island nation after 259 people were killed in a terror attack in April. The political parties in Tamil Nadu are worried as they recall the atrocities on minority Tamils in Sri Lanka during the crackdown on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 2006 to 2009. Gotabaya was defence secretary during his elder brother’s presidency and oversaw the final military offensive against the LTTE.
Not surprisingly, India quickly reached out to the new Sri Lankan President. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar flew to Colombo soon after Gotabaya’s election and conveyed to him India’s expectation that the new Sri Lankan government would take forward the process of national reconciliation and ensure equality, justice, peace and dignity for the Tamils. Gotabaya is set to visit New Delhi on November 29.
India’s relations with Bangladesh have steadily improved ever since Sheikh Hasina took over as prime minister in January 2009.
Yet, even that relationship is in danger of fraying. During her visit to Delhi last month, Hasina conveyed to Modi Bangladesh’s concerns over National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam, which is seen to be aimed at alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Dhaka fears that Delhi might seek to deport those left out of the NRC – some 1.9 million people currently – to Bangladesh. She also expressed concern over the growing clamour in the ruling BJP for a nation-wide NRC exercise. Hasina’s government has ruled out the possibility of Bangladesh “taking back” from India the people who could not make it to the NRC. Dhaka, in fact, has never accepted that such a large number of people from Bangladesh have illegally migrated to India.
Although Modi is said to have assured Hasina that the NRC is a purely internal affair of India, it has not done much to reassure Dhaka, given the rhetoric from no less than Union Home Minister Amit Shah, that India does not intend to push millions of alleged illegal immigrants into Bangladesh.
Dhaka is also upset as Delhi’s response to the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh was muted. India was cautious as it competes with China in building infrastructure and strategic assets in Myanmar, too.
Afghanistan is key to India’s security and it is imperative for Delhi to ensure that the country does not end up being controlled by Pakistan. India has spent nearly $3 billion over the last several years on reconstruction and rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan – much to the chagrin of Pakistan, which has always wanted to use Afghanistan to obtain for itself what it otherwise lacks – ‘strategic depth’. India has excellent relations with the Afghans, yet the going for Delhi is tough there. The Donald Trump administration, keen to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, is increasingly relying on Pakistan to manage Afghanistan and seeks a deal with the Taliban that would give the group, a Pakistan proxy, a major say in Afghan affairs once the US pulls out. New Delhi has been almost elbowed out of Afghanistan matters by regional powers Pakistan, China and Russia.
The Maldives, which under former President Abdulla Yameen, was a source of concern for the Modi government during its first term, afforded Delhi some relief when Yameen was voted out of power in November 2018 – after a five-year-term during which China outsmarted India to spread its geo-strategic tentacles in the Indian Ocean archipelago. But the contest for Maldives’ favour is not over, and Delhi will do well to remain vigilant.