At the Heart of South Asian Diplomacy

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Prof B C Upreti underscores the critical importance of India’s outreach to her South Asian neighbours

The change of government in India, marked by the return of single party majority after a long gap, has opened up new opportunities and promises in domestic politics as well as the foreign policy arena. India’s well planned and carefully executed foreign policy moves in the regional context under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are a clear indication of the proactive and positive neighbourhood policy agenda of the BJP-led government.

A New Chapter

The formation of the new government in India began with the commendable gesture of inviting the heads of SAARC countries to witness the oath taking ceremony of Narendra Modi as India’s 15th prime minister, the first time that such a decision was taken. The gesture was welcomed and heartily reciprocated by the neighbouring countries. It gave a bold message to the neighbours about India’s commitment to a new beginning. Following the oath taking ceremony, Prime Minister Modi had one-on-one talks with all the invited leaders. Another important step taken by the new establishment was the meeting of the minister of external affairs with the diplomats of neighbouring countries, wherein they apprised the new government of the state of affairs in their respective countries.

Reinforcing a Unique and Special Relationship

To the surprise of many, Modi chose Bhutan for his first foreign visit as prime minister. The visit served two objectives: recognising the age-old friendship with Bhutan and a clear message to other South Asian countries that the neighbourhood was India’s top priority. PM Modi maintained that Bhutan was a natural choice as his first foreign destination because of the ‘unique and special relationship with that country’, and his deep desire to further strengthen India’s strong bonds with its Himalayan neighbour. India’s sole objective was to make development and cooperation with Bhutan more effective. The Bhutanese, pleasantly surprised by the Indian premier’s choice, accorded a very warm and affectionate welcome to the visiting dignitary. PM Modi held talks with his Bhutanese counterpart over the utilisation of river water resources, development and trade. He laid the foundation for a 600 MW hydro-electric power station and inaugurated the parliament building constructed by India.

Reaching out to the Eastern Neighbour

The Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, paid a visit to Bangladesh and met PM Sheikh Hasina as well as opposition leader Khalida Zia. She discussed the contentious Teesta River water issue with her Bangladeshi counterpart and other important issues including terrorism, drugs and human trafficking, smuggling, infiltration across international borders, transportation and border issues.

There are also indications that the External Affairs Minister and PM Modi may also visit Nepal in August, a country that is passing through a crucial stage of constitution formation and socio-economic transformation.

India’s Stakes in South Asia

India has vital economic and strategic stakes in South Asia. While India needs to gain goodwill, there is also a strong need for a secure neighbourhood. As the largest country of the region, India has the responsibility to take a lead in building a secure neighbourhood. Cross border terrorism, trafficking, fundamentalism, political instability and conflicts are serious challenges to regional stability. The Indo-centric nature of the region poses psychological barriers, and also a sense of insecurity and inferiority in the minds of the South Asian neighbours vis-à-vis India.

The external interference in the region is another daunting challenge. China’s peripheral diplomacy and the expansion of its economic and strategic interests all over South Asia, threatens to marginalise India in the region. India needs a strong policy to counter these challenges. There is a need to build a peaceful and stable periphery, but there are multiple issues and challenges that demand bold initiatives and strong political will.

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Prof B C Upreti

Prof B C Upreti is Former Director of South Asia Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.

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