Heralding his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy when he was first sworn in on 26 May 2014 itself, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had then invited national leaders from all the eight South Asian countries to the ceremony. And, not only had all of them obliged him to be present but, in less than three weeks of being him in office, Bhutan had hosted Prime Minister Modi’s first foreign visit.
This visit was followed by an invitation from Nepal, where Modi was to make four visits in his last five years. Afghanistan and Sri Lanka hosted Modi twice and his Act East policy also saw him engaging with India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ by travelling to Myanmar twice, Singapore thrice and China five times. In March 2015, in the wake of the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed, Modi had suddenly dropped the Maldives from his Indian Ocean tour. But in November 2018, a change of government made it possible for him to visit and attend the swearing-in ceremony for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
Even India’s arch-rival Pakistan saw Modi starting his term with indulgence, with Modi making an unannounced surprise stopover in Lahore in December 2015 to attend the wedding of then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter. However, tensions soared following the terrorist attacks at Pathankot and Uri in 2016 and could never be recovered.
The India-Pakistan spat has since resulted in making the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) dysfunctional, and India has moved to focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) as an alternate sub-grouping for India’s neighbourhood first policy—sans Pakistan. Even with Nepal, relations had deteriorated following the economic blockade during late 2015 but were revived during subsequent exchanges of high-level visits including Modi’s two back-to-back visits to Nepal during May and August last year.
From commerce to culture
One fundamental change in India’s policy under Modi was to avoid directly countering China’s expanding commercial footprint inside India’s neighbouring nations. China has created an added challenge for India in that the southern country’s work with its neighbours appears diminished, even disinterested, in comparison to the high-speed delivery of China’s mega projects. From early 2017, Modi has not only achieved agreements termed as the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ with China’s president Xi Jinping but also reinvented India’s connect with its immediate neighbours. Along with accelerating India’s trade and investments and infrastructure projects, the second half of Modi’s first term saw him privileging India’s religious, cultural, linguistic, historical and ethnic people-to-people connections that China clearly lacks in South Asia.
Early in May 2017, Modi was the chief guest at Sri Lanka’s hosting of the 14th International Vesak Day, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha. Modi here, not only attempted to mesmerise Buddhists by his eloquent discourse on Buddhism with lavish use of Pali and Sanskrit canons and concepts but also visited famous Seema Malaka Temple in Colombo and prayed at the world famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy.A September 2017 Myanmar visit saw Modi praying at the historical and celebrated Ananda Temple in Bagan and addressing the Indian community. A year later, May 2018 saw Narendra and K P Sharma Oli doing a roadshow together in celebrations at Nepal’s famous Hindu shrines of Janakpur, praying at Pashupatinath and meditating at Nepal’s iconic Muktinath temple in Mustang district near to China border. This, of course, has also led to speculations on how Modi’s policies could embolden Hindu and Buddhist forces in these countries.
Terrorism and Pakistan
Terrorism remains another perennial challenge with implications for both peace and prosperity. Here, in spite of Modi’s spike of assertive surgical strikes and air action. Imran Khan has incessantly pushed peace overtures and China has relented on Azhar Masood being designated as a ‘global terrorist’. This does not augur well for Modi striving to build global consensus on countering terrorism so that this menace can be addressed effectively and terrorists and freedom fighters are no longer confused by any two countries.
From late the 1990s nuclear tests and violence in Xinjiang, China had briefly distanced itself from Islamabad. However, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has since emerged both as a bridge and also a barometer of the rising strength of their enduring axis. Their staying together will continue to be the most formidable challenge to Modi’s Neighbourhood First 2.0 which may begin by India’s being further marginalised in its own periphery. Reconciliation initiatives of major powers in Afghanistan remain perhaps the most apt case in point. Overcoming such a predicament will require building far deeper stakes from both sides than just doubling India’s aid to neighbouring countries.
After receiving this thumping mandate for his second term in office, Modi’s first meeting with national leaders of China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal will take place at the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek between July 13-14.
Countering terrorism has been a top priority for successive SCO summits. Modi here will have to explore building deeper partnerships by making countering terrorism a shared challenge to regional peace and prosperity and assimilate China and Russia as integral actors to his Neighbourhood First 2.0 policy.
Swarn Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Featured in The Kathmandu Post