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Is Modi's 'Neighbourhood First' Policy Living Up To Its Promise?

02/02/2016 8:37 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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In a way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated his "neighbourhood first" policy as an important component of his diplomacy when he invited the heads of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations during his swearing in as PM in 2014.

In keeping with this, Modi chose Bhutan as his first foreign destination as the PM of India. Subsequently, he covered most of the South Asian nations, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Today, India's neighbourhood is at the cusp of major political and economic transitions. While Bangladesh -- despite political and security challenges -- is showing signs of economic resurgence, Sri Lanka democratically voted in its Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 and Nepal adopted its new Constitution.

Has Modi's neighbourhood first policy been able to respond to the changing realities of South Asia?

In this context, an important question to ask is this: has Modi's neighbourhood first policy been able to respond to the changing realities of South Asia?

The answer is, while it has made some significant beginnings towards the economic integration of the region, Modi's response to the political and security exigencies in India's neighbourhood remains a humongous task in progress.

For instance, Sri Lanka has begun the process of formulating a new Constitution. Reconciliation with the minority Tamil community to prevent another ethnic war will be a key focus area.

India might find itself in a Nepal-like situation again. Just as the Madhesis -- who share close cultural ties with the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar -- there are ethnic linkages between the Sri Lankan Tamil population and the people of Tamil Nadu.

Accommodating the political demands of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka is a sensitive issue in Tamil Nadu. Is India prepared with an adequate response to any situation that might arise as Colombo drafts its new Constitution?

The other aspect where India recently suffered a significant dent in its image as a South Asian leader is security. Indeed the deal with Afghanistan involving the transfer of four Mi-25 attack helicopters is South Asia's one of the most consequential deals. It not just marked India's first transfer of offensive weapons to the country, but also made a considerable addition to Afghanistan's air power.

But, close to the deal and even closer to PM Modi's visit to Afghanistan, the attack on India's consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif happened. Diplomatic concerns aside, the attack on Mazar-e-Sharif and on India's air base in Pathankot exposed vulnerabilities of India in securing its own strategic assets. To the region, today, India looks more like a victim than a leader with a robust counter-terror mechanism in place.

To the region, today, India looks more like a victim than a leader with a robust counter-terror mechanism in place.

Talking about Nepal, during his visit in 2014 -- the first bilateral trip by an Indian prime minister in 17 years -- Modi announced a credit line of US$1 billion to aid the hill country's development in power generation and infrastructure, especially transport.

In October 2014, the two nations also signed the Power Trade Agreement (PTA) aimed at increasing cooperation in transmission interconnection, grid connectivity and power trade.

However, India -- one of the first countries to send aid during the Nepal earthquake - seemed terribly wanting when it comes to formulating an adequate response to the political crisis that ensued in Nepal following the adoption of its new Constitution.

The Indian government was quick to express its displeasure at Nepal's Constitution and even circulated a seven-point demand for amendments.

Nepal interpreted this response as a covert support to the protest against the Constitution led by its southern district population, the Madhesis and Tharu -- the ethnic groups representing over 40% of the population in Nepal's Terai region. They oppose the Constitution saying it is an attempt to their political marginalisation.

In protest, the Madhesis blocked the Indo-Nepal border trade enroute Birgunj checkpoint, which accounts for more than 60% of Nepal's foreign trade, leading to a huge crisis in Nepal impacting the flow of fuel and supplies from India..

Nepal, terming it as an "unofficial blockade" by India, lodged a complaint with the UN Security Council.

The entire bilateral crisis seems to be perceptional -- a suspicion that India in its bid to show its weight is siding with the party that opposes the Constitution, in this case the Madhesis.

Nepal feels while many of the concerns might be genuine, the Constitution would have addressed those in the due course of time through amendments. India's insistence that Nepal pays heed to the Madhesi demand was seen as a gross act of interference.

India's insistence that Nepal pays heed to the Madhesi demand was seen as a gross act of interference.

Additionally, Kathmandu also believes that India can actually influence the Madhesi protesters to call off the Nepal blockade.

New Delhi failed terribly in formulating an adequate narrative to counter this perception.

Instead of "expressing concerns" right away India should have engaged in back channel discussions with its Nepalese counterparts on the probable consequences of a constitution that is not accepted by many of its people.

Instead of "concerns" India's key messaging should have been around "integration" of Nepal and the forces risking it.

Although the latest reports indicate the Nepal government may amend the new Constitution to include the Madhesi demands, in the bilateral crisis that ensued India failed convey to Kathmandu the probable consequences of a dissatisfied portion of population, such as escalating tensions between the people of the plains and hill regions.

However, Modi's "neighbourhood first" policy does show economic promise.

Despite challenges of growing Islamic radicalism, Dhaka has high economic hopes. According to reports, Bloomberg forecasts that Bangladesh will grow at 6.6% in 2016, second only to India (predicted to grow at 7.4%).

As the country steps into a low middle income status, recent agreements signed between India and Bangladesh complement Dhaka's quest to get integrated into the world economy, especially through better connectivity by land and sea.

Modi's neighbourhood first policy shows economic promise, but it needs a proper mechanism in place to adequately respond to political and security situations in South Asia.

Many of these agreements will go a long way in improving connectivity through roads and rail, easing the time and cost of transport.

Signing of the landmark Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) for the Regulation of Passenger, Personnel and Cargo Vehicular Traffic is a significant step. Once implemented the agreement is said to have the potential to increase intra-regional trade within South Asia by almost 60% and with the rest of the world by over 30%.

To conclude, Modi's neighbourhood first policy shows economic promise, but it needs a proper mechanism in place to adequately respond to political and security situations in South Asia.

Narrowing Distances

This article first appeared in BBC Hindi

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