The highlight of India’s engagement with the world in 2019 was its fraying relations with its immediate neighbours. Relations with Pakistan touched an all-time low in February when a major terrorist attack in Kashmir prompted India to carry out air strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp at Balakot inside Pakistan. Then, in August, India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. So strained were bilateral relations this year that an outbreak of hostilities seemed likely in February-March. Bilateral dialogue was not revived and Pakistan, in fact, suspended diplomatic and trade ties with India. India’s ties with Bangladesh, too, cooled over the Narendra Modi government’s enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. The articulation of the need for the law was insensitive towards a friendly neighbour. With the return of the Rajapaksa family, seen as pro-China, to power in Sri Lanka and Nepal stepping up participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, India’s relations with them is entering an uncertain phase. However, it is in Afghanistan that India’s influence and interests now stand on the edge of the precipice. The outcome of the ongoing talks between the US and the Taliban and the impending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan will undermine India’s presence in Afghanistan and its ambitions in Central Asia.
Some of the foreign policy setbacks India suffered in 2019 were of New Delhi’s own making. Failure to anticipate shifting ground realities, for instance, narrowed India’s options in the unfolding ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan. Should the Taliban return to power, India could be left friendless in Afghanistan. Delhi’s failure to provide its neighbours with an attractive option to BRI has kept them all in China’s orbit. But most disastrous for Indian interests has been the Modi government’s continued suppression of Kashmiris and the CAA. These have diminished India’s stature as an inclusive democracy. It has put Kashmir back on the agenda of several global forums. Saudi Arabia, which seemed to be shifting away from backing Islamabad on India-Pakistan issues, is now considering hosting a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries on Kashmir, albeit merely to draw Pakistan away from Iran-Turkey-Malaysia-led meeting of Islamic nations. Delhi’s ill-advised moves in Kashmir have provided Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries with reason and opportunity to bond.
Going forward, the Modi government must think better over decisions and actions that provoke even India’s friends and provide room for inimical countries to join hands against it. Rather than orchestrating ‘rockstar-like receptions’ abroad, India’s leadership should focus on skilful diplomacy and sensitive engagement of our neighbours to enhance its interests.