Neighbours First: Modi’s Foreign Policy Mantra


With Prime Minister Modi at the helm, India’s atrophied foreign policy formulations and processes would acquire imaginative and dynamic contours befitting an emerging Asian Power and a global player, insists Dr Subhash Kapila

India’s neighbourhood, comprising countries crucially strategic for India’s national security, stood grossly neglected in foreign policy formulations of the previous political dispensation for the last 10 years. In the decade, it was internationally being held against India that if India could not re-order its own neighbourhood in the Indian sub-continent, how could she aspire to surge forward as an emerging Asian power and a global player? What this implied was that Indian foreign policy processes stood atrophied by lack of dynamism and proactive approaches to win over confidence, and influence its neighbours.

The Pakistan-centric policy formulations of the last government, under pressure from the US, led to the foreign policy neglect of the rest of the all-important Indian sub-continental neighbourhood. It was being commonly said that during the last 10 years, India’s foreign policy stood outsourced to Washington.

Had India diverted equal effort and time to focus on its foreign relations with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, it would not only have gained significant strategic successes, but would also have erased the international criticism that India was found wanting in spreading its influence in its own immediate neighbourhood.

This Indian neglect created a strategic vacuum in which China gleefully entered much to India’s discomfiture. The situation was further complicated by inadequate government responses that permitted Indian states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu to dictate foreign policy responses on the plea that ‘political coalition compulsions’ fettered India’s foreign policy.

Long Overdue Priority

‘Neighbours First’ was the foreign policy mantra propelled by Prime Minister Modi even before he took oath as India’s new prime minister. This was a long overdue foreign policy priority dictated by the previous political dispensation’s gross neglect of India’s neighbourhood.

Prime Minister Modi’s political outreach to the neighbourhood emerged in the form of an invitation to leaders of all SAARC countries to attend his swearing-in ceremony. This was willingly accepted by all leaders, except Pakistan, which took time to accept the invite due to compulsions of the Pakistan Army.

With his political outreach, Prime Minister Modi facilitated a splendid opportunity for first hand interaction with SAARC leaders even before he embarked on a proactive foreign policy. Valuable political discussions with SAARC leaders fostered mutual understanding of both the visiting leaders and Prime Minister Modi.

It also helped the Indian Prime Minister to tailor his initial foreign policy blueprint for the neighbourhood based on his personal perceptions of each SAARC leader. Significantly, Prime Minister Modi selected Bhutan and Nepal for his first visits as part of his ‘Neighbours First’ foreign policy initiative. He virtually synchronised the visits of Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh and Myanmar as part of the political outreach to all neighbours.

Strategic Significance

Prime Minister Modi’s priority in selecting Bhutan and Nepal as his first ports of call in India’s neighbourhood was systematically missed in Indian media analyses. Strategic determinants, so far absent in Indian foreign policy planning, came into play.

Nepal and Bhutan are strategically crucial for India’s national security as they not only share borders with India, but also crucially with an overbearing China in the north. Nepal and Bhutan, therefore, are ‘strategic buffer states’ which impede China’s direct access to Indian boundaries along a wide stretch of our Himalayan borders.

Nepal was virtually gifted away to China’s influence by the unimaginative and flawed policies of the previous government. India handed over Nepal to the Nepalese Maoists and facilitated their political legitimacy, something which they could not win in a decade of violent insurgency. Regrettably, no Indian prime minister visited Nepal for the last 17 years.

Bhutan, India’s long-standing, steadfast friend, has lately been under Chinese pressure, both diplomatically and militarily. China has indulged in intrusions into Bhutanese territory to enlarge the Chumbi Valley salient pointing at India’s Siliguri Corridor.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bhutan, therefore, carried rich symbolism both in terms of strategic reassurance and political support appreciative of its India friendship. The visit of the Indian prime minister was well received by Bhutan at all levels and promises to have overcome any minor irritants that may have existed.

Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Mission Nepal’ was more challenging and called for adroit statesmanship. India had to virtually reclaim Nepal to India-friendly postures after decades of anti-India hysteria propagated by both Nepalese domestic politics and Chinese moves.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the only Hindu nation in the world, including paying obeisance at the historic Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, was particularly welcomed in Nepal. Modi’s gesture symbolised the rich common civilisational heritage of both countries.

Imaginative and Visionary Step

Significantly, the ‘Modi Magic’ seemed to have worked in making his Nepal visit successful. Even top Maoist political leaders were fulsome in praise of Prime Minister Modi and his offerings to Nepal. Significant was his declaration in Nepal that India would never interfere in the country’s domestic political dynamics as an overbearing neighbour.

It needs to be noted that Prime Minister Modi took an imaginative and visionary step in selecting Bhutan and Nepal as the first neighbours to be visited. Besides reasons outlined earlier, it was symbolic that even India’s small neighbours would henceforth be accorded equitable respect in the Modi government’s foreign policy.

Like Bhutan and Nepal, Myanmar also is a strategically located country with long borders with China contiguous to India’s Arunachal Pradesh claimed by China as ‘Southern Tibet’. In the 1990s, India’s late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, despite Western opposition, initiated the first significant Indian diplomatic outreach to an internationally isolated Myanmar.

The process has somewhat continued thereafter, but without the dynamism that should have been imparted. Prime Minister Modi’s initiative in sending the foreign minister to Myanmar in the opening months of his government has injected the necessary dynamism to India’s approach to Myanmar. Hopefully, prime minister himself would be able to visit this important neighbour in the near future.

Bangladesh was accorded a similar priority by the visit of Sushma Swaraj. Bangladesh, under the continuing present political dispensation of Sheikh Hasina, has valued friendly and cordial relations with India. It is a pity that the previous Congress government could not come up with matching fast-track initiatives.

In a well-timed, friendly gesture in July 2014, India gracefully accepted the maritime boundaries award given by the Permanent Arbitration Commission of United Nations arbitrating on maritime boundaries disputes. This was a significant confidence building measure extended by the Modi government to Bangladesh. It is an assurance that under his leadership, the river water sharing agreement would also take some positive shape. Interestingly, with this generous gesture, India’s international reputation soared even as China has obdurately refused to accept any arbitration on the South China Sea disputes.

With Prime Minister Modi at the helm, India’s atrophied foreign policy formulations and processes would acquire imaginative and dynamic contours befitting an emerging Asian Power and a global player.

Go to Content Page


Dr Subhash Kapila

Dr Subhash Kapila combines a rich professional experience of the Indian Army (Brigadier), Cabinet Secretariat and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and the United States. In addition to over a thousand published papers on strategic and foreign policy issues, Dr Kapila has also published a book, ‘India’s Defence Policies and Strategic Thought: A Comparative Analysis.’

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.