By Sreeradha Datta
India, once again, is thrown into a piquant situation in its own neighbourhood. In the penultimate year before this NDA government goes to the polls, its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy of 2014 has not yielded much gains. The evolving situation in South Asia has often needed quick readjustments, but India’s inability to rise to the occasion and stick to its muscular-policy matrix has been a sombre reminder of the limits of its power play in an assertive region.
India, however, is being prodded by extra-regional powers to play a more prominent role outside the South Asian region, even though it has not been able to crack the code with its own immediate neighbours. Perhaps, Bhutan and Bangladesh are the only exceptions in this scenario.
Ironically, the interest India evokes amongst the bigger powers is based on their perception of India’s role in their strategic thinking vis-à-vis China. Much as India would like to believe otherwise, its limitations to influence and further its national security interests within the neighbourhood seemed to pale when pitted against this big neighbour China, who appears increasingly visible in South Asia, in areas considered New Delhi’s backyard, much to its dismay. Unable to deliver on the promises towards its neighbours vis-a-vis China, India is reduced to being reactive in the unfolding scenario in South Asia.
How is ‘Neighbourhood First’ perceived today? Where exactly is the 2014 narrative of peace and friendship with neighbours four years hence? This is a critical period for India and the region at large. Pertinently, other than Nepal, which has a new elected government, all other South Asia states, including India, are going to polls within a year. So there are limits to any initiatives that a nationalist government in New Delhi can take now.
Bhutan, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose for his first official tour signalling its ‘Neighbourhood-First’ commitment, is both a friendly and a vital neighbour for India. Certainly, India was able to hold its own over the Doklam standoff and the 73 days’ military faceoff between India and China over its construction of a road at the strategic tri-junction of the three countries - which was seen as transgression into Bhutan’s territory and the withdrawal of Chinese troops - was seen a victory for India for now, but seems tenuous in the context of the larger picture of India’s continuing border dispute with China, though recent summit meetings between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to have cooled bilateral waters considerably.
The other Himalayan neighbour, Nepal, has been far trickier to engage with. Nepal has been in throes of severe domestic upheavals for over a decade and the appreciation of India’s quick relief support during the very strong earthquake it suffered has all but been nullified. The closing of the borders over the aspirations of the Indian-origin Madhesi population of the plains - demand for changes in the constitution that Nepal finally published in 2015 - has left an indelible scar.
This second round of an economic blockade imposed by India not only severely affected the entire population but alienated both the people and the leadership and made them sceptical about New Delhi’s intent, despite the two sharing a common religion. Prime Minister K P Oli’s first overseas visit to India, and subsequently to China, was another reminder about the importance of both to this Himalayan nation. Nepal’s deepening friendship and growing connectivity with China is an eventuality that New Delhi will have adjust to.
The clear unease that India experienced over the recent Maldives domestic crisis could have not come at a worse time. Not only was India reduced to being a helpless onlooker to the imposition of emergency by President Mohammed Yameen and the arrest of opposition leader and former President Abdul Gayoom, known to be close to India, but its recent decision to return one of the two naval helicopters that India had gifted, together with its growing proximity to China, has all but destroyed any shred of influence that India thought it held over the Maldives where it had once sent Indian troops at Gayoom’s request. Notwithstanding the stable Indo-Sri Lanka ties, Colombo has not made any overtures to widen the scope of bilateral relations. On the contrary China, despite its unpopularity over the huge debt it has forced upon Sri Lanka, maintains a substantial investment and commercial stronghold (accounting for over USD 15 billion) over this island nation.
Western neighbour Pakistan has been a cause of recurring concern for over the longest period of time. Modi’s overtures to its political leaders did not cut much ice with the military establishment and it continues to find ways to extend hostility through transgression at borders and various ingenuous mechanisms. Even Modi’s tough speak has yielded no significant outcomes.
Closely linked to India’s Pakistan policy, India’s foreign policy goal in Afghanistan seems stable but difficult at the same time. Despite the deep friendship Kabul and New Delhi enjoy, India and Pakistan continue to joust for influence over Afghanistan and India is yet evolve any mechanism of edging out its hostile western neighbour from its strategic stranglehold over Afghanistan.
India’s accomplishment vis-a-vis its eastern neighbours of Bangladesh and Myanmar has been more robust, spanning political, economic and defence ties in recent years but the latest imbroglio over the influx of Rohingyas hounded out from the Arakan region into Bangladesh has pointed to the fragility of these bilateral ties and friendship. Bangladesh felt let down by lack of support from India and Myanmar realised its strategic hold over India.
Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, running adjunct with its neighbourhood policy, was largely premised on support from Myanmar and other Southeast Asian states.
Both these eastern neighbours are of critical importance to India. They are relevant much beyond the bilateral context. These two bilateral relationships, spanning a wide cross section of common issues including trans-border infrastructural development, will complement the initiative to promote regionalism in the subcontinent, at least on India’s eastern flank.
Presently, India is pursuing two regional initiatives in its neighbourhood. The sub-grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) will introduce seamless cross-border trade and transportation through signing of the Motor Vehicles Agreement Agreement - although Bhutan has held back for the time being because of environmental concerns - but the three other states are going ahead with the trial runs.
The other regional organisation on which Modi has expended considerable focus is that of BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Dormant for over two decades, it is being infused with a fresh lease of life. BIMSTEC comprises five South Asian states - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka - and two Southeast Asian neighbours Myanmar and Thailand.
India is keen to make this organisation effective as it is suitably poised to complement Indian efforts to tap the potential in its Northeast as well as its bilateral efforts to engage with the adjacent neighbourhood that indeed is interlinked through a common ecosystem.
The two-pronged effort to revitalise India’s Northeast and create an effective regional group has led to Modi unveiling a strong developmental plan consisting of building a network of roads and highways, organising investments fairs, encouraging tourism and establishing institutions of higher education, harnessing energy potential but most importantly establishing a connectivity to not only mainland India but also with its immediate neighbours in the East. A functional BIMSTEC organisation will not only be the precursor to establishing trade and connectivity and creating cross border value chains with the member states but will also generate an economic momentum that will vitalise the land and sea route connections to mainland India.
Thus, Bangladesh and Myanmar, two of India’s eastern neighbours, are critical to making BIMSTEC operational. The bilateral cross-border transport connectivity and economic corridors India has undertaken with them will be woven together into a regional transportation and connectivity network complementing many of the other BIMSTEC agendas. Given India’s limitations in the immediate neighbourhood its refocus on eastern regionalism is not surprising. But can India pull it off?
(The author is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )