Millennium Post

Building new neighbourhood policy

Prime Minister Modi is embarking on a pragmatic and proactive neighbourhood policy for the past two months but will it work according to expectations? Perhaps it is too early to talk of the results, as it is not just the policy but also its implementation, which is the key. As of now the ministry of external affairs is going full steam to cultivate the neighbours with the Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj personally making contacts to assure them of the new government’s intentions.  Modi himself has already visited Bhutan, his first after taking over as PM and is expected to visit Nepal next week.

There are some who are critical of India’s neighbourhood policy claiming it lacks vision. China is making inroads in the neighborhood, which should cause concern to New Delhi. Modi has set his eyes on correcting this and rightly so as the past 10 years the UPA government had neglected the neighbours. Prime Minister Singh was concentrating on improving ties with the west and particularly the US rather than those in India’s backyard. The new government offers a fresh opportunity to approach things differently.

It stands to reason that Modi wants to put his best foot forward.  Geographically, India is located in the middle of the SAARC region surrounded by smaller countries and shares land boundaries with all of them. Moreover the SAARC countries are growing fast with an average growth rate of about eight per cent while the trade within the region too has doubled in the past five years. In the power sector, India’s electricity grid is now connected to Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Trade under SAFTA could be as much as $85 billion.

Modi began well in the international scene. Being a provincial politician, not much was known about his foreign policy vision. It was important for Modi to start off on a positive note since he was perceived as a hardliner on security and foreign policy issues. Modi won kudos for his unprecedented move to invite the SAARC heads of state for his swearing in ceremony on 26 May. He did not budge when Tamil Nadu protested the invite to Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapakse.  His meetings with the visiting heads of state including those from Pakistan were high on atmospherics, and seen as the proof of the new government’s intention to engage with its immediate neighbours first.

Although the initial steps by the Modi government can be described as ‘get to know the neighbours’ visits, during his visit to Bhutan Modi has reassured his support by coining a term B4B – Bharat (India) for Bhutan. The visit to Bhutan was also seen as a move by the Indian government to show its clout and primacy in the subcontinent.

The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s first trip abroad was to Bangladesh. Lots of misgivings were generated in Bangladesh in the run-up to the general elections, when Modi talked about illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Swaraj tried to allay their fears but the real progress will be known only when there is a forward movement on the Teesta, illegal immigration, and endorsement of land boundary agreement by Parliament and trade matters.  Bangladesh has a genuine grievance about India not delivering on these agreements that became hostage to Indian domestic politics. What is required now is speeding up implementation of connectivity projects (road and rail) and upgrading border infrastructure for trade. ?

Swaraj’s trip to Nepal last week to participate in joint commission meeting is also connected to Modi’s visit to the mountain kingdom next week.  There are several important issues including the hydro- power projects and the extradition treaty, which need to be sorted out during Modi’s visit next week. The Mahakali treaty signed in 1996 also needs to progress. If they could resolve some of these pending issues, it would go a long way.

Swaraj is also expected to go to Myanmar soon for the ASEAN and likely to touch base with the Myanmar government officials. India’s relations with Myanmar are on the right track and what is needed is to speed up implementation of projects, involve the Indian private sector in border development and improve deliver. Myanmar is India’s land bridge to ASEAN.

Both countries will certainly watch the resumption of foreign secretary level talks between India and Pakistan. No one expects this to be a breakthrough but some signal should emerge from the meeting. The Indo-Pak relations are too big to be resolved in one meeting but there could be improvement on trade relations.

Modi has been cautious about Sri Lanka, as he needs the help of the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu for support in Parliament. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been putting pressure on the fishermen issue, Katchateevu and the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamil Nadu has a role in the Sri Lanka policy in the past. How Modi will handle this is to be seen.

But the success of Modi government could only be assessed in the coming months.  There is a momentum now, which should be seized by both sides. There are several long pending issues with the neighbors. Modi should address the border and visa issues with Pakistan, expand trade relations with Bangladesh and address ethnic issues with Sri Lanka and nudge Nepal in its democratic process and writing of the Constitution.  Forging economic diplomacy with Bhutan and strengthening the security issues with all these neighbors is also important. So far there is no indication of any big- ticket items on the table. These are difficult issues but Modi with his mandate could succeed to a large extent if he has the will. No doubt he cannot simply wave a magic wand but the expectations are too high. IPA

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