Prime Minister Modi has outlined India’s policy towards its neighbours early in his term. The key to building good relations with neighbours will not only be India’s willingness to adopt a large-hearted approach but, most importantly, the ability to conceive, conclude and complete contracted projects within an accelerated time schedule. A good relationship with neighbours will enable Modi to engage more confidently in future with more powerful and sophisticated nations like China, believes Jayadeva Ranade
Dispelling any doubts that the new Modi government had not formulated its foreign policy, Prime Minister Modi gave clear indications within three months of his swearing-in that the central pillar of his foreign policy will be to accord priority to India’s neighbourhood and pay particular attention to ensuring friendly neighbours. In the process, he simultaneously defined the contours of his government’s policy for India’s neighbourhood and outlined India’s geographic area of immediate strategic interest.
Breaking New Ground
The new initiatives were set in motion even before the swearing-in ceremony on May 26 when, for the first time ever, leaders of neighbouring countries, and those in whom India has an abiding interest, were invited to New Delhi for the event. This initiative immediately sent out a number of messages, including that the new prime minister will take active interest in foreign policy issues and would readily engage and communicate directly with these and other world leaders. The initiative strongly signalled that India, as the biggest country with among the largest and fastest growing economies in the region, is eager to tap the existing economic potential, by assisting in the development of its neighbours. It offers all these countries an opportunity to forge a closer, cooperative partnership with India, join in India’s growth and benefit from the enhanced economic opportunities flowing from India’s growth and rise. The resounding popular mandate, not seen in the past 30 years that his party, the BJP, received, strengthens the initiatives that Modi could take, and many relationships will be examined afresh, possibly breaking new ground.
The presence of Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse at the swearing-in ceremony unambiguously clarified that India’s foreign policy would be decided by the Centre and will not be held hostage to local political considerations or by state governments. The meetings with the Sri Lankan and Nepalese leaders are said to have been quite frank. The ruling BJP’s majority in parliament gives New Delhi a high degree of flexibility in crafting foreign policy.
Parameters for Future Indo-Pak Engagement
India’s most troubled relationship among its neighbours is with Pakistan. Relations have remained strained for decades because of the volatile border, unceasing terrorist attacks sponsored by Pakistan and the dispute over Kashmir. In fact, the vexed issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism was catapulted to the forefront with the terrorist attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat in southern Afghanistan on the eve of Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. The terror strike was launched by Hafez Sayed’s ‘Lashkar-e-Taiba’ (LeT), the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit trained and financed by the Pakistan Army, in the early hours of May 22, just four days prior to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26. The intention was to ‘test’ the fledgling Modi government. The LeT’s well-provisioned terrorist group planned to disrupt the swearing-in ceremony by a protracted hostage situation, but was providentially frustrated by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and failed. Prime Minister-designate Modi, who, by noon the same day, had spoken to India’s Ambassador in Afghanistan, Afghan President Karzai and concerned officials in Delhi, was fully briefed, but went ahead with a scheduled meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Nawaz Sharif is known to have close ties with the extremist jihadi tanzeems. He and his brother officially allocate funds from the Punjab provincial budget for Hafez Sayed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawaa (JuD). Nawaz Sharif’s acceptance of Modi’s invitation was also delayed till news of the failure of the terrorist attack on Herat was confirmed on the afternoon of May 22. While Nawaz Sharif’s daughter tweeted the following day that her father would attend the ceremony in Delhi, the Pakistan Foreign Office officially confirmed Nawaz Sharif’s attendance on May 24. The incident served, yet again, to highlight Pakistan’s agenda and point to Nawaz Sharif’s duplicity as he would have had prior knowledge of the terrorist action.
Any doubts about Pakistan’s involvement were dispelled by Afghan President Karzai in a publicised interview to Headlines Today, a day prior to Modi’s 50-minutes meeting with Nawaz Sharif. Blaming the LeT for the terrorist attack, Karzai said this had been independently ‘confirmed by a Western Intelligence Agency’. By going public with the information on Indian national television, the Afghan President gave Modi additional basis for a ‘frank talk’ with Nawaz Sharif. Reports indicate that India’s security concerns and ‘red lines’ were conveyed to Pakistan’s prime minister.
The decision in mid-August to suspend Foreign Secretary-level contacts following the Delhi-based Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with so-called ‘leaders’ of the Hurriyat follows from Modi’s discussions with Nawaz Sharif. Continuance of this policy, which is being put to test by the heightened firing by Pakistani troops along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB), will set the parameters for future India-Pakistan engagement.
Consolidating Commerce and Cultural Connections
Equally important was Modi’s decision to visit Bhutan and Nepal which rectified the absence of high-level diplomatic exchanges between India and these countries, and continued the engagement started at the swearing-in ceremony. Relations with both countries impact directly on India’s security. The existing close ties between India and these countries and persistent efforts by China to make inroads into Bhutan and expand influence in Nepal right up to Nepal’s borders with India, were undoubtedly major considerations. By making Bhutan the first foreign country that he visited, Modi emphasised the importance of this relationship to India. He received a warm welcome and met Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema. The emphasis was on enhancing and consolidating people-to-people ties and business interests, with trade as an additional area of focus.
Recent hiccups in Nepal’s relations with India need attention. China’s ingress into Nepal is a cause for additional concern, especially the inroads it has made into Nepal’s political, military and business elite. While India continues to be the largest provider of FDI to Nepal and gives Nepalese people ‘national status’, or the unrestricted right to employment, residence and purchase of property in India, Chinese government NGOs (GONGOs) have stepped up activities inside Nepal. China has used them to access and expand its influence in border areas in northern Nepal and, more significantly, among interest groups around Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The Chinese GONGOs have unveiled plans for development of Lumbini as a hub for ‘Buddhist tourism’. These include a modern airport and monastery-cum-seminary where monks from the region – mainly practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and inhabiting India’s vulnerable Himalayan border belt – will receive free accommodation, food and ‘religious education’. Obviously, the airport will be built and managed by the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the monks ‘educated’ at the monastery’s seminary will return to their abodes in the Himalayan states.
Modi’s two-day visit to Nepal in August 2014, the first by an Indian prime minister in 17 years, was aimed at emphasising traditional socio-cultural ties between the two countries. He sought to assuage Kathmandu’s concerns by expansively stating that India was open to all suggestions by Kathmandu, including on the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950. Cooperation, connectivity, culture and the constitution were the leitmotifs of the visit, when he interacted with the full spectrum of Nepal’s political leadership, including CPN-Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom-de-guerre ‘Prachanda’, and Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal, KP Oli. He especially appreciated that the Maoists had given up arms and opted instead for the ballot box. He sought to subtly impress on the Nepalese leaders and people that certain benefits could only be provided by India.
In addition to extending a $1 billion line of credit, he emphasised the development of road transport and Internet infrastructure with India and hydel power projects. The first two directly highlight the employment opportunities that will become available once they are developed. Construction and exploitation of Nepal’s hydel power reserves will not only give Nepal adequate power supply, but will provide the country an unceasing steady source of revenue. All three benefits can only result from closer cooperative Indo-Nepal ties. Prime Minister Modi also subtly hinted at concerns about the developments in Lumbini by mentioning that he hoped to visit that city on his next visit six months later.
Modi has outlined India’s policy towards its neighbours early in his term. Carrying forward the momentum will be visits to Bangladesh and Myanmar, which could materialise soon. Clearly, the stress will be on building economic ties and cooperative relations, while seeking to dispel any apprehensions of interference by India. At the same time, Modi’s government will be expected to ensure India’s security interests by co-opting the support of its neighbours. The key to building good relations with neighbours will not only be India’s willingness to adopt a large-hearted approach but, most importantly, the ability to conceive, conclude and complete contracted projects within an accelerated time schedule. A good relationship with immediate neighbours will enable Modi to engage more confidently in future with more powerful and sophisticated nations like China.