Neighbours Lap Up Modi’s Foreign Policy Starter


New Delhi, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, certainly appears to have big power ambitions and one can expect quite a bit of soft power diplomacy in the immediate neighbourhood to achieve the larger goal, writes Wasbir Hussain

A hundred plus days after Narendra Modi assumed charge as India’s new prime minister, it has become clear he is pursuing a neighbours’ first agenda as far as New Delhi’s foreign policy thrust is concerned. It is also true that Modi and the BJP set their eyes on India’s neighbours right from the time they strategised their campaign themes for the national elections. “We will engage proactively on our own with countries in our neighbourhood and beyond. In our neighbourhood, we would pursue friendly relations. However, where required, we will not hesitate from taking a strong stand and steps,” the BJP had stated in its election manifesto. It also stressed the need for regional cooperation and connectivity within South Asia.

Beyond Symbolism

Many call it a foreign policy coup of sorts, but it was not surprising, in the backdrop of Modi’s election slogans, to find the prime minister-designate inviting the heads of all the seven SAARC nations to attend his government’s inauguration. Why did he do so, and in the process become India’s first prime minister to invite the heads of governments of the neighbouring South Asian nations for the swearing-in of a new government in New Delhi? Well, it clearly indicated that Modi was seeking a stable neighbourhood that would partner Delhi in trade and commerce, cultural pursuits, and, above all, help improve India’s internal security situation by denying anti-India elements and insurgent groups’ sanctuary in their respective nations and engage in subversive activities. The move had another clear message – that the new government would get rid of India’s Pakistan fixation and focus on strengthening relations with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and other neighbours in the immediate vicinity and beyond.

Modi’s decision to make his first foreign trip to Bhutan, within three weeks of his assuming office, is more than symbolic. True, Bhutan has been a traditional ally of India, but one must remember six years ago, the Himalayan nation transformed from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy, with political parties at the helm of affairs. Now, it is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that is ruling Bhutan with the 48-year-old Harvard educated Tshering Tobgay as prime minister. With real power vested with the political class, foreign policy contours also seemed set to change. In fact, it did change when the former Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley met then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of an environmental summit in Brazil in 2012, a meeting that did not go down well in India.

India has always guided Bhutan’s foreign policy, but things changed quite a bit in 2007 with the two nations amending the 1949 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty. It gave Bhutan significantly greater freedom in pursuing it’s foreign and defence policies, areas tightly controlled by New Delhi for nearly six decades in accordance with the earlier Treaty. Not only did the amendment signal the arrival of Bhutan’s upcoming democracy, it also opened possibilities of significant, if not drastic, changes in Thimphu’s multilateral diplomacy in the neighbourhood.

New Delhi is aware of the changes, but would not, under any circumstances, want to vacate space for any other neighbour to manoeuvre in Bhutan, considering its proximity to India. This primarily was the reason for India’s displeasure at the Bhutanese prime minister’s 2012 meeting with his Chinese counterpart. Modi’s decision to make Thimphu his first port of call as prime minister signalled the importance New Delhi accorded Bhutan. Apart from inaugurating Bhutan’s Supreme Court building that was built with India’s assistance, the prime minister also laid the foundation stone of the 600 MW Kholongchu hydroelectric project, a joint India-Bhutan venture. Modi also proposed a joint sports festival between Bhutan and the northeastern Indian states, promised doubling scholarships for Bhutanese students in India, and offered to establish e-libraries in 20 districts in Bhutan – offers that sought to demonstrate New Delhi’s intent.

Deepening Ties with Dhaka

Bangladesh, in fact, was wary of Modi because during his election rallies he had, on more than one occasion, insisted that Bangladeshis (obviously illegal Bangladeshi migrants) would have to leave India the moment his government assumed office. However, Modi surprised everyone by dispatching External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka within 30 days of assuming charge. That the Modi Government was keen to improve ties with Dhaka was indicated by New Delhi’s decision to relax visa rules for children below the age of 13, and citizens above the age of 65. The plan is to give this category of people multiple-entry tourist visas for five years on their arrival in India, a move aimed at boosting ties between the two South Asian neighbours. Another slippery area that the Modi government decided to tread was to indicate to Dhaka that New Delhi could soon ratify the Land Boundary Agreement that would allow the two countries to exchange land enclaves. The BJP in Assam, going by the local public mood against transfer of land, has reservations on the ratification of this Agreement.

New Delhi under Modi is clear that Bangladesh can play a major role in furthering India’s economic interests. Connectivity has been a key issue, and Dhaka giving access to sea lanes by letting India use ports at Chittagong and Mongla to service the landlocked north-eastern states is of great importance to New Delhi. This was reinforced when Minister of State for External Affairs Gen (Retd) VK Singh, who also holds charge of the critical Development of North Eastern Region Ministry, visited Dhaka in August, heading a business delegation. Gen Singh’s focus was to ‘deepen trade ties with Bangladesh’, but the leaders in Dhaka, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, urged India to seal the Teesta water-sharing agreement during meetings with the visiting minister. The BJP is in a position to push ahead with the Teesta deal since it enjoys a majority, but is aware of local opposition to such a water sharing agreement in the state of West Bengal where the party is hoping to consolidate its strength. That Gen Singh was accompanied by the chief minister of Meghalaya and a senior minister from Tripura, two of the northeastern states bordering Bangladesh, made it clear that the Modi government was taking states into account to further trade and cultural ties between the two neighbours.

Modi’s Myanmar Mission

The Modi government’s Myanmar mission has also been very significant. For long, New Delhi’s Myanmar policy was seen as a response to what China was doing or engaging in that country, but Sushma Swaraj’s four-day visit to Nay Pyi Taw, which she described as ‘very successful’, certainly changed that a great deal. Beijing provided aid when the world reduced Myanmar to the status of a pariah state after the brutal military takeover in 1998, and imposed sanctions. Though China is well entrenched there, India has realised over time that it has to look beyond China if it truly wants to consolidate its ties with Myanmar. Besides, New Delhi has an edge insofar as historical ties between the two nations are concerned.

That India and Myanmar are keen on looking at new areas of cooperation was reflected during Swaraj’s visit following the discussion on setting up of a Joint Consultative Committee to identify areas of mutual interest. Swaraj went to the extent of suggesting that chief ministers of states bordering Myanmar participate in the JCC besides union ministers. Issues relating to boosting trade, border cooperation and infrastructure development also figured in the talks. The two countries share a 1,643 km long border, and it is only expected that engagements increase and business and investments grow beyond the meagre border trade through designated points along northeast India. In fact, Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Myanmar came at a time when there is growing resistance in that country to Chinese-funded projects by non-government actors. This is a situation that New Delhi is expected to capitalise on, and therefore, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit in November, he is likely to offer easy credit facility to Myanmar besides useful joint venture proposals.

Ground-Breaking Visit

It was Modi’s visit to Nepal in early August that can actually be considered ground-breaking because no Indian prime minister had bothered to visit the next door neighbour for 17 years. This had led to a trust-deficit with sections in Nepal’s political spectrum accusing India of not helping Kathmandu on the economic front and instead interfering in the nation’s internal affairs. Modi appeared to have addressed such concerns by stating unambiguously that India will respect Nepal’s sovereignty and would not interfere in its internal affairs. But, it was Modi’s statement that India was all for revising and updating the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty that calmed the political class in the Himalayan nation.

As the big brother next door, Modi promised help in Nepal’s socio-economic development by assisting in projects as highways, information technology and transmission power lines. “You decide what needs to be done, India will stand by you,” he said, while offering Nepal $1 billion in concessional loans to help build roads and power plants.

It remains to be seen what Modi neighbourhood push will actually yields for India. The new government certainly appears to have big power ambitions and one can expect quite a bit of soft power diplomacy in the immediate neighbourhood to achieve the larger goal.

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Wasbir Hussain

Wasbir Hussain is Executive Director of the Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati. A two-time former Member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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