Modi’s India: Ignoring neighbours to embrace the world

The BJP Government has put Neighbourhood First Policy on backburner, leaving it underperforming amid rising anti-India sentiments in the region

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi [File Photo]

BJP government has made foreign policy  a key election issue: Prime Minister Modi has stated, ‘Neighbour first and Act East second.’  Foreign Minister S Jaishankar is campaigning how G20 has enhanced India’s image and influence as a global player. Quest for High Table has shifted focus from Neighbourhood First Policy (NFP) . S Jaishankar explained that  politics can go up and down in neighbourhood but people generally have good feelings for India. That is certainly not the ground reality today when in almost every country , anti-India feeling is prevalent. NFP which was formally launched  in 2008, has not performed optimally due to internal and external factors.  Act East appended later  has also failed to take off . Followed several add-ons: sab ka saath sab ka vikas; SAGAR; Vishva Mitra; First Security Responder and so on.

Former Minister Jaswant Singh in his book Defending India, has noted that India is strategically confined by Macmahon Line, Durand Line, LAC and LoC. Still it was once the regional hegemon having promulgated the Indira Doctrine and employed military force  in national interest. India’s geography and asymmetry with neighbours are both asset and liability. Congenital problems with Pakistan and later China have made it the least connected South Asian region. NFP was designed to shape the neighbourhood, especially the periphery, extending the neighbourhood  to Mauritius and Iran in the West and Myanmar in the East. Curating friendly regimes, winning the goodwill of people through economic linkages and connectivity, creating strategic assets, minimising liabilities and most of all, being sensitive to genuine concerns of neighbours were some  objectives of NFP. Rubbing neighbours the wrong way was not, nor meshing domestic politics with diplomacy. That an aspirational India would create glitches for NFP was not envisioned. China, gate- crashed after hiding its strength and biding its time arriving with deep pockets, BRI, MSR and Wolf Warrior diplomacy .

 With  ups and downs in politics  regional rivalries were in full flow. Nepalese scholars were first to   note  change. The founding father, King Prithvi Narayan Shah had observed that Nepal is a yam between two boulders: China and India. They  corrected that gospel to three boulders, adding US. Till late last year, Maldives followed India First policy, the only country to publicly proclaim the choice.

That has changed to India Out with President Muizzu demanding the 88 Indian soldiers leave before elections next month. He even hinted that Delhi tried bullying Male. Its strategic geography is pivotal in the Indian Ocean. Maldives is for now China First but India could have been more gentle with its smallest neighbour. Raking up the Kachhatheevu issue that the government admitted it was settled in 2015, was a self goal but both Modi and Jaishankar wished to politically embarrass the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu and INC. Instead it has infuriated Sri Lankan media and ordinary Lankans, especially fisherfolk among the lakhs of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils.

US Assistance Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asia, Donald Lu has called Sri Lankan’s economic recovery a “comeback story” with concessional loans from India and USAID. That story will suffer a setback lead to revival of anti-India sentiment and further tilt towards China to whom Lanka owes USD 10 bn. In Bangladesh BNP has started an India Out campaign. China is heavily invested in projects including constructing a submarine port near Cox’s Bazar adequate for 8 to 10 submarines. Bhutan was within a whisker of a land swap with China by the previous government. Otherwise Doklam could have been lost to the Chinese which would have endangered Siliguri Corridor, the India-Bhutan-China trijunction dispute. The new Lotay Tshering government might  delay the Doklam swap.

In Myanmar, the military is rapidly losing ground in the civil war with  Ethnic Armed Organisations and NUG. It has lost border control with China, Bangladesh, India and Thailand to EAOs. Most critical for India is Sittwe Port vital for the multi-modal Kaladan project and also the trilateral highway to Thailand. Reuters reported that junta troops nearby have fled and an attack on Sittwe is imminent. But Sohel Kazan, executive director, Bharat Freight, said last week that Sittwe will be safe following a deal between junta and Rakhine state government. If true, that is good news.

Kaladan project was contracted in 2008 and is nowhere near completion dislocating India’s two signature Act East projects.. Delhi has to rethink its relations with the junta. Most if not all regional countries want SAARC to be revived, But India’s iron clad policy of not dealing with Pakistan till terrorism from its soil stops has been aggravated by removal  of Article 370. Trade potential according to World Bank between Pakistan and India is between USD 15 and 20 bn. India’s NFP has not worked because its global ambitions have diluted its zeal for the neighbourhood. Further, it has been unable to compete with China despite geography being on its side. Under NFP and Act East, India has concentrated mainly in the maritime domain resulting in neglect of inland connectivity.

The Government brags about North East shining  (Manipur is a shame) but little progress is seen over connectivity of BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan India Nepal) or South East Asia. The Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) is also dead. India’s focus on neighbourhood has wavered , failing to secure the periphery. Some diplomats have advocated India setting red lines? Winning over neighbours is now a huge challenge.

Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

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