Energetic and proactive: These were the words used to describe the foreign policy of the Narendra Modi government that came to power in May 2014.
Nearly four years and four months since the swearing-in ceremony that saw leaders of South Asian nations grace the occasion with their presence, the scenario in the region is very different from what the government probably foresaw back then. Said ceremony — that now seems like a lifetime ago — saw extremely warm exchanges between Modi and his South Asian counterparts, coupled with a set of bilateral discussions, and went some way in underlining the BJP manifesto’s emphasis on a ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
In the intervening years, it’s safe to say that while relations with Afghanistan and Bangladesh have remained solidly positive, ties with the other South Asian countries — that were represented at the 26 May ceremony — have not fared all that well.
The bilateral with Sri Lanka has experienced its own share of ups, downs and intermittent spells of stability, and the latest fly in the ointment is set to be Mahinda Rajapakse’s meeting with Modi in New Delhi. It may be recalled that the former president had blamed India for meddling in Colombo’s affairs in the lead-up to the 2015 Presidential Election that saw Sri Lanka throw him out of office and elect the less China-friendly Maithripala Sirisena instead. How the Sirisena government responds to New Delhi’s increasing cosiness with Rajapakse remains to be seen, but it’s likely to have ruffled a few feathers in Colombo.
Between a whole host of agreements with China and demands for India to take back its helicopters, the Maldives has emerged as a major trouble spot for Indian foreign policy. The strategic advantages of the archipelago nation’s location in the Indian Ocean falling into Chinese hands coupled with the threat of growing Islamic radicalism within its borders mean establishing warm and cooperative relations with Malé are a must. Perhaps the tide will change once Ibrahim Mohamed Solih takes office as President of the Maldives.
Any discussion of trouble spots would be incomplete without a mention of Nepal. It is said in some circles that India — that has spent years balancing the US and Russia, and in recent times, China and the US — is getting a taste of its own medicine with Kathmandu carrying out its own balancing act of New Delhi and Beijing. While it can be argued that Nepal’s India policy has indeed been opportunistic — taking New Delhi’s assistance when required and then throwing India under the bus when China comes a-knocking, the Modi government hasn’t helped matters by switching between warm generosity and moves like the Constitution imbroglio and the ‘economic blockade’.
Then there’s India’s all-weather friend Bhutan. Thimphu’s’temporary’ departure from the Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement — a move on which there has been little tangible movement in over a year — and Prime Minister’s Tshering Tobgay warm words directed at China in his June address to the nation (ahead of the dissolution of the Assembly in August) show that India cannot afford to take this bilateral for granted anymore.
Blind spots in India’s neighbourhood policy
There are three fundamental issues with India’s South Asia policy that go some way in explaining the present scenario:
- The duck theory:If it smells like a duck, sounds like a duck and looks like a duck, there’s a damn good chance it is, in fact, a duck. In South Asia, and no matter how much Indian governments over the years have attempted to deny the suggestion, India is viewed as a regional hegemon. Whether as a result of being the largest economic and military power in South Asia, having played a role in its neighbouring countries like the 1971 Liberation of Bangladesh and the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s operations to neutralise the LTTE in Sri Lanka (the narrative around foreign intervention can change very swiftly from ‘help’ to ‘invasion’, depending on whom you ask), or being willing to provide financial, infrastructural and training-related aid, India has and will be viewed as hegemon in South Asia. And no one likes a bully.
2) You don’t stack up to China: Aside from the shared geography, India and its neighbours have a common history, many common traditions and ethnicities, and a rich common heritage, aside from facing very similar issues and problems. Further, India has a great deal to offer its neighbours financially, infrastructurally and so on, as mentioned in the previous point. China, unfortunately, has a whole lot more to contribute financially, technologically and infrastructurally, without any of the squabbles that usually emerge from a common history (see: Tamils issue with Sri Lanka).
3) The flip-flop nature of outreach: The problem with being energetic and proactive is that it often leaves the door open for hasty decisions and even hastier volte faces. In its first couple of years, the Modi government went on a rampage in terms of reaching out to the neighbourhood and trying to strike a new note that would be conducive to harmonious coexistence, particularly since the BJP has always maintained that two successive UPA regimes “failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours”. The groundwork laid during the first phase of outreach was impressive in terms of optics. However, the government appears to have miscalculated that sentiment on the ground would reflect the pleasantness and bonhomie on show in photo-ops. It is this miscalculation that has led to the flip-flop (Kabhi haan, kabhinaa, if you will) nature of India’s overtures towards its neighbours — and this is most evident in the on-off nature of ties with Pakistan.
The way forward
An understanding of how India is (correctly or incorrectly) viewed by its neighbours, tempered with an acceptance of how the neighbourhood views China is imperative in the formation of a pragmatic foreign policy for the region. Taking a long-term position and sticking by it until its requirements have been fully met is something that India has failed to do with its neighbours. The most glaring case in point is New Delhi’s repeated optimism that “this time will be different” when dealing with Islamabad. If the government says, “Talks and terror cannot go hand-in-hand”, then that is the line that must be toed through thick and thin. If the government says, “Nepal is a troublemaker”, then that is the line to be toed regardless of what the Nepali prime minister du jour says.
In summation, scripting and sticking to an unshakable long-term foreign policy that keeps in mind ground realities and perceptions is the need of the hour for India in the region.