Modi’s Second Term: Implementing the ‘Neighbourhood First’
Dr Sreeradha Datta

Along with others, the neighbourhood attention was riveted on the Indian general elections. For many, not only the scale of the exercise was fascinating but more importantly, what it portends for the future of their bilateral with India. And as the congratulatory messages flowed in from the neighbours on the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) overwhelming win, it reflected the interest and optimism that they held for engaging with India.

The messages went much beyond the mandatory congratulatory phases and each leader expressed their desire to work closely with India. Pakistan Prime Minister’s message of desire to see the PM elect Narendra Modi to ‘work for peace, progress and prosperity’ perhaps echoes the sentiments of all. Just as people of India decided to give the NDA government a chance to implement the larger goals for growth and progress, which Modi had elucidated in his previous term, the neighbourhood will also be hoping to implement and fructify many of the earlier plans and projects, while also creating newer opportunities.

Modi’s return as the leader of the winning NDA coalition will be significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it will be able to consolidate the ongoing programs and projects which was initiated under the aegis of the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy during the previous government that remained unfinished. Secondly, the next five years will provide scope and an enabling environment to work towards a larger regional goal. Unlike the past Indian trends, Modi was eager to engage with the neighbours through a regional forum and regional organisations of BIMSTEC; sub-regional arrangements as well as regional trading arrangement will be given greater thrust to make them more robust and deliver to the people the common goals of development, peace and prosperity.

Thirdly, while the bilateral relations in the neighbourhood in the past five years had recorded a mixed bag, some marking more successes than others, Indian attempts to work with the neighbourhood would be towards not only strengthening the bilateral but also ensuring the irreversibility of the bilateral ties. The political vagaries in each capital have often dominated the bilateral trajectory and the surrounding tension and uncertainties often impacted Delhi’s engagement with the regional leadership. Indeed, the Indian experience in Male stands out as one such glaring instance which fortunately was able to revert to its earlier firm footing. The continuity of bilateral ties through the various developmental projects and common agendas would assume greater focus.

Spinning off from this, growing engagement with the neighbours and continuation of Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ will provide an enabling atmosphere for the leaders in the region to strengthen their economies through greater regional integration, and also allow them larger negotiating space with extra-regional actors like China. While the entire neighbourhood is closely engaged with India and China, given the experience of Sri Lanka and Maldives, the fears of debt vis-à-vis China has cast a shadow, though given the requirements for infrastructure development most neighbours could display limited choice. India with its burgeoning economy will be in a position to provide flexibility for each of them to secure more favourable deals. It’s a work in progress for India but much needs to be done to address the requirements in the neighborhood.

Modi is set to visit Male on his first trip overseas post his assuming office later this month. Indeed the turnaround of Maldives under President Solih in the recent past has been the most significant wins in the neighbourhood for India. Solih’s message of ‘resounding electoral victory’ reflects the restoration of normalcy in this bilateral relationship and providing for a secure atmospherics in the Indian Ocean region too. Apart from the overriding strategic interest, India and Maldives cooperation covers a vast number of issues covering tourism, health, climate change and people-to-people ties, and the visit will be a reiteration of the mutual cooperative framework.

For India, the two Himalayan neighbours Nepal and Bhutan hold great significance and both the PMs’ have expressed their interest in working closely with India. In the past, India and Nepal have gone through difficult bilateral periods and hopefully with Modi’s four visits to Nepal in his last term Oli and Modi have broken the distrust cycle. While there are mixed opinions in Kathmandu about Modi’s return, some have expressed reservations about Modi pushing for the return of the Hindu state, it would be reassuring for them to discuss the implementing the Eminent Persons’ Group report. Bhutan went through a crises over the Chinese intrusion in the bordering Doklam area and the fear about this threat looming over this small kingdom is never lost on India. While energy trade and tourism are points of convergence, and India’s decision in 2018 to provide transitional Trade Support Facility of 400 crore rupees for Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan seems like a positive gesture, this bilateral tie will need better nurturing in the days ahead.

Sri Lankan PM’s warm response on Modi’s ‘magnificent victory’ is significant in the face of crises that this island nation recently faced. India has been equally worried about the sudden terror attacks and its implications. While Colombo also recovers from internal differences, India’s non-bipartisan role as a source of support and strength needs to be underscored. This bilateral tie has seen better days but is assuming greater relevance to India given the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region. Apart from the spectre of terror and Islamic militancy, Delhi and Colombo will have much to discuss and engage with.

Bangladesh has been the consistent supportive her neighbour and PM Hasina’s decision to include a Delhi stopover in her tri-nation itinerary in the days ahead will be a reiteration of the close bilateral ties. Discussions over consolidation of security and economic issues will find space but both these neighbours will have to examine ways to ensure the momentum increases. Their convergence over regional partnership will hopefully see the light and see resolutions of the outstanding issues.

While dialogue and discussion will dominate furthering of bilateral engagement with the neighbours, India is likely to first wait for a signal from Pakistan before it make its move. The two leaders are expected to meet at the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Forum in Bishkek next month but for resumption of bilateral talks Pakistan will need to show more concrete efforts. Especially in the shadows of the Pulwama attacks over which India is unlikely to show any signs of mellowing. Modi is unhesitant about meting out suitable response to any attack on India. In any event when Indian security interests are slighted, India’s response will not be muted.

The decision to invite the BIMSTEC leaders and the current SCO host Kyrgyz Republic along with the Mauritius PM for Modi’s swearing in is in continuum of the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy and focus on regionalism. India is looking East consistently and hoping to make BIMSTEC count this time round. BIMSTEC, housing over 1.5 billion of the world’s population, has the two fastest growing economies (Bangladesh and India) amongst the seven countries with combined GDP close to $3.5 trillion. The two meetings of BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs in March 2017 (New Delhi) and March 2018 (Dhaka) reflect the mounting concerns of the governments on the complex nature of the region’s security. The importance of recognising the Bay of Bengal as a common security space, which was initially mooted during the first meeting in 2017 and continues to receive greater attention, was also the theme for the first BIMSTEC think tank dialogue on ‘Regional Security’ held by Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

Similarly, the continued outreach to the vibrant Indian diaspora is reflected in the invitation to Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who is one of the most well known of person of Indian Origin. Developments in the neighbourhood have clearly pointed to the need for all to converge to address common threats emanating from the region and outside. All member countries agree on the salience of security and on ensuring a peaceful region, without which growth and prosperity is untenable.

Security considerations override everything else, but that being a given, India’s main focus in the regional landscape will be to limiting the bilateral outstanding issues through developing and furthering economic ties. While in most cases government-to-government ties in the South Asian neighbourhood have improved substantially, people’s contact needs to be strengthened. India will need to work on the fears, suspicions, mistrust that lingers in the mind of the neighbours about the Indian intents. That India poses no threats to any, needs clearer articulation. A confident Modi and a growing India will hopefully offer the neighbours more reason to engage with for the upcoming term. Shifting deadlines and delayed projects have been the bane for India’s foreign policy and India needs to address this gap.

It’s a tall task from India given its track record but hopefully this time round there will an attempt to break the past logjam. Modi surely is best positioned to evoke faith and trust in India and the Indian system.

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