Modi 3.0: Neighbourhood First Policy Revived with a Fresh Impetus

  • With several geopolitical developments since the last decade, India’s Neighbourhood First policy has become a core component of India’s foreign policy.
  • China has successfully lured India’s neighbours into forging deliberative economic pacts which can potentially lead them into a deep state of financial slumber.
  • India’s neighbours must choose between strengthening partnerships with democratic, liberal India, which respects international rules and maintains stable global relations, or aligning with China, which drives countries into debt and aims for ruthless global hegemony.

In the evolution of India’s foreign policy, the pragmatic foreign policy initiative of ‘Neighborhood First’ was indeed a significant milestone. In PM Modi’s first term, all the members of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) were invited to his swearing-in ceremony, post which Narendra Modi held a dialogue with all the SAARC leaders which marked the beginning of the Neighbourhood First Policy. With several geopolitical developments since the last decade, India’s neighbourhood policy has become a core component of India’s foreign policy. It aims to foster stronger ties, enhance regional cooperation, and address mutual concerns with immediate and extended neighbouring countries. The policy is driven by India’s consultative, non-reciprocal, and development-oriented approach. The presence of the Maldivian Prime Minister, was a clear indication that India is seriously planning to strategically deal with the Island nation, to ensure that it does not engage in any deliberations which can hamper India’s national security and national interests.

President of India Smt. Droupadi Murmu hosted a banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan in honour of the leaders of neighbouring countries attending the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister of India. The leaders who attended the banquet include President Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka; President Mohamed Muizzu of the Maldives Vice President Ahmed Afif of Seychelles; Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh; Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth of Mauritius; Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda of Nepal; and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay of Bhutan. With the presence of these leaders, the absence of Pakistan and Afghanistan was noticeable. India does not officially recognise the Taliban regime in Kabul and with the souring relations with the Nuisance State of Pakistan, its non-invitation came as no surprise.   

Tracing the History

In the evolution of India’s foreign policy, the geographic neighbourhood has always played a critical role in strategic decision-making. Ever since India’s Independence, its relations with the neighbouring countries have been on a roller coaster of highs and lows. But somehow, till the 1990’s the strategic establishment in India never viewed its neighbourhood as its extended strategic asset which could open broader gateways of political, economic and socio-cultural linkages and boost its intended national interests and foreign policy agendas. With the efforts and vision of Prime Ministers like P V Narasimha Rao, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the focus on India’s neighbourhood as a key foreign policy objective emerged, as they stressed strengthening India’s immediate external relations, especially with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to address and tackle India’s internal security concerns. In this manner, the strategic importance and relevance of India’s neighbourhood emerged at an institutional scale.

Under PM Modi, three cardinal objectives were extended towards the Neighbourhood First policy, namely Samvriddi, Suraksha and Swabimaan.

However, the policy of “Neighbourhood First” was officially adopted by Prime Minister Modi, in his first tenure in 2014. India witnessed the “Neighbourhood First” in action when Modi invited all the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014. Under PM Modi, three cardinal objectives were extended towards the Neighbourhood First policy, namely 1) Samvriddi (Economic Prosperity and Development) 2) Suraksha (National Security) 3) Swabimaan (Self Respect).  With these objectives, India aims to utilize its neighbourhood as a key strategic pivot, to gain a larger footprint in the world. As India has cultural and civilizational ties with all its neighbours, it aims to bring about a fruitful convergence of historical relationships to obtain its longstanding strategic objective of emerging as a global leader or “Vishwaguru”.

It is pivotal for us, to realize that India’s foreign and strategic policy has gained a reinvigorating impetus and a transformative paradigm shift under the Modi – Jaishankar duo in the last couple of years. Today, the world looks up to India to take up the heavy mantle of steering global leadership, as it surges ahead to emerge as one amongst the world’s most influential countries, in this decade. Therefore, it becomes a natural mantle for Modi 3.0 to stimulate a paradigm shift in its Neighbourhood First policy.

Charting the way ahead:

The direction of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy should focus on creating mutually beneficial, people-oriented, regional frameworks for stability and prosperity. Key aspects of this direction include:

  • Connectivity: Enhancing connectivity through Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members, ensuring a free flow of resources, energy, goods, labour, and information across borders.
  • Improving Relations with Neighbours: Prioritizing peace and tranquillity in South Asia by improving relations with immediate neighbours, ensuring continuous support for their development, and strengthening markets.
  • Dialogue: Engaging in vigorous regional diplomacy through dialogue to build political connectivity and address security concerns.
  • Economic Cooperation: Enhancing trade ties with neighbours, participating in regional initiatives like the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping for energy development, and investing in SAARC as a vehicle for development.
  • Disaster Management: Cooperating on disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting, and communication to ensure the capabilities and expertise in disaster management for all South Asian citizens.
  • Military and Defence Cooperation: Focusing on military and defence cooperation to address security concerns.
  • Principles of Gujral Doctrine: Ensuring that India’s stature and strength are not isolated from the quality of its relations with its neighbours, promoting regional growth, and resisting compromising bilateral relationships for short economic interests.
  • Regional Connectivity: Pursuing regional connectivity with greater vigour while addressing security concerns through cost-effective, efficient, and reliable technological measures.
  • Monitoring India’s Line of Credit (LOC) Projects: Monitoring the effectiveness of India’s LOC projects and exploring the feasibility of setting up a regional development fund for connectivity infrastructure.
  • Addressing Chinese Influence: Handling India’s external threats better by curbing Chinese influence in the region and achieving necessary support in multilateral forums like the UN.

Dr Jaishankar’s Minilateralism in the Neighbourhood

Dr S Jaishankar’s foreign policy doctrine includes the development of minilateralism and minilateral institutions. The minilateral groupings which involve three to four or a maximum of five countries are becoming very popular and gaining geopolitical traction in the present times. The Quad grouping is a classical example of this. The other emerging grouping of partnerships between India, UAE, Israel and the USA which is popularly described as called as the Middle Eastern quad is yet another example of the growing minilateralism in the world. The intellectual brain behind the forging of these minilateral partnerships happens to be Dr Jaishankar.

As per his calculation and strategy, the failures and shortcomings of large traditional international organizations and West-driven multilateral forums like G20 can be overcome by small, issue-based and channelized goal-oriented minilaterals. If this approach is adopted in India’s neighbourhood, several longstanding strategic issues within the subcontinent can be addressed efficiently and effectively. India’s effectivity in the implementation of the Neighbourhood First Policy would be visibly seen by fostering positive and concrete outcomes. This in turn would be critical for the fostering of a stable and prosperous Indian subcontinent.

The failures and shortcomings of large international organizations and West-driven multilateral forums like G20 can be overcome by small, issue-based and channelized goal-oriented minilaterals.

Elephant in the Room

Contemporary Geopolitics is making the world order go through highly turbulent and difficult times. The apprehensive rise of Chinese global dominance and hegemony has caused the already disruptive diplomatic institutions in the world, to engage in a transactional and an aggressive modus operandi and has had a major impact on India’s neighbours. China has successfully lured India’s neighbours into forging deliberative economic pacts which can potentially lead them into a deep state of financial slumber. India’s international challenges entail growing strategic gaps in the Indian subcontinent, especially with its neighbours, which has increased the extent of security dilemmas significantly. These challenges need to be addressed with an uncompromising and unwavering policy of strategic autonomy.

  • Transportation and Infrastructure: India should lead in establishing cross-border transport and communication links.
  • Strengthening Markets: India should work with neighbours to strengthen their markets and infrastructure.
  • Cultural Dialogue and Soft Power: India must ensure continuous support for its neighbours’ development, engage in cultural dialogue through track two diplomacy initiatives and leverage its soft power and common culture to strengthen cultural ties.  

India’s Neighbourhood First policy was drafted with the ambition of creating a robust and strategically integrated South Asia. From the gloomy progress of SAARC to India’s limitations in developing its strategic capacities, this policy has become a mixed baggage, with mostly low-key successes so far. India is facing a three-pronged strategic dilemma: a) Unfriendly neighbourhood, b) Unstable neighbourhood and c) Conflictual neighbourhood. Without stability in the region, the Neighbourhood First policy would most likely be a failure. With the lack of deep pockets and poor capacity building in the region, the relationships in the neighbourhood would only remain transitional. India needs to develop a better understanding of the strategic culture of the region, to strengthen its relationships, along with developing its strategic capabilities to exert the needed cohesive influence.

Neighbourhood first” must be a means to an end in the larger game of geopolitics and not an end in itself. However, with a fresh impetus to this policy, certain progressive outcomes and results can be witnessed in India’s neighbourhood. India’s neighbours need to make a clear choice: do they intend to strengthen their strategic partnerships with India, which is a vibrant democratic nation with liberal values and freedoms, that respects an international rules-based order and harnesses stable relations with the international community or do they intend to go with China, which has proven instances of pushing several countries into a deep state of economic slumber, driving countries into the vicious cycle of debt trap and has the ambitions of becoming a ruthless global hegemon.

(Viswapramod is an International Affairs analyst and contributes regularly to magazines and portals. He has an MA in International Relations. Views expressed are the author’s own)


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