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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 40 New Delhi September 22, 2018

Evaluating India’s New Neighbourhood Policy

Tuesday 25 September 2018

by Duryodhan Nahak

Over the last four years, in a host of writings India’s new neighbourhood policy or neighbours first appears to be the dominant theme. Mean-while, India’s neighbourhood policy is essentially a continuity and change since the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid the edifice of Indian foreign policy in the initial years of India’s independence. Indeed, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister-designate, surprised many by inviting all the SAARC leaders, particularly Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony against which he was vehemently campaigning in the run-up to the 16th Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Now for several years, improving relations with neighbours is being debated more vigorously in political quarters than academia and intelligentsia.

Despite the fact that India has fought several wars and low intensity conflicts with its arch rival Pakistan and come across conflictual situation with the neighbours many a time in the history of its independence, it has also been able in resolving some of the crucial boundary and water disputes through negotiations and discussions. While India is the dominant power in the region, it has conceded the demand of neighbours on a friendly basis irrespective of bigger and smaller ones. More significantly, India shares geographical boundary, socio-economic similarities and cultural resemblances with the neighbours. Historically, most of the countries in South Asia were part of the Indian subcontinent. With India, countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal are members of the SAARC. Though Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives are relatively smaller countries in South Asia, for India, they assume greater significance from the geo-strategic and political point of view. Further, in Myanmar, though it is not a part of SAARC, demand is increasingly growing for its inclusion in the SAARC. China, India’s another closest and large neighbour has deeper ramifications on Indian political establishments and in the economic sphere even if paucity of space prevents it from being discussed in greater detail. However, its role would be briefly argued as its influences India’s neighbourhood policy considerably.

It is very much evident that in the post-war world, the world got divided into two power blocs led by the United states and USSR. It is to be noted the while Pakistan became a member of SEATO and CENTO and a part of the US-Pakistan defence arrangement concluded in 1954, India advocated NAM. Most of the neighbours joined the NAM as they wished to refrain from superpower rivalry. The personality of our first Prime Minister Nehru, his close association with freedom struggles, his Western education and participation in a number of anti-imperial conferences and struggles prior to independence enabled the country to have a better experience in the sphere of foreign policy and command respect from several peace-loving countries of the world as a whole.

Individually, India had developed friendship and cordiality with various countries of the region like Bhutan, Nepal even China. In the meantime, India was grappled with numerous daunting challenges from different neighbouring countries. In the beginning, it was an abstruse task for India to survive as a nation-state. Nehru’s farsightedness helped the country to build up relations with the nations of Europe, and especially with the USSR, in the close vicinity, He was successful in resolving water and boundary disputes to some extent. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960 with Pakistan, Indo-Nepal friendship agreement in 1950, Nehru-Kotelewal agreement of 1954 concerning the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka were the initial break- throughs between India and its neighbours. The mixture of realism, idealism and complex interdependence essentially guided India’s foreign policy during the Shastri and Indira era. The Indira Doctrine enunciated in the 1980s was an appeal that neighbours should look first towards the largest power in the region. That provided an opportunity for India to intervene in Sri Lanka. Of course, it was proved to be an utter failure.

It is to be noted that till recently, there has not been any major change particularly in the matter of India’s neighbourhood policy. In other words, irrespective of regimes, India was not lacking in a grand strategy in dealing with the major compelling issues. Even non-Congress governments were following the path paved by earlier leaders with little alteration. Most notably, I.K. Gujral, who became the Prime Minister for a brief period in 1997 in the United Front Government, launched a major initiative, the “Gujral Doctrine”, for improving India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. He announced a unilateral action known as “policy of non-reciprocity” that signified extending cooperation and all possible help to the neighbours not in the line of give and take; rather it aimed at only granting unilateral concessions. A matter of immense satisfaction is that this process was carried forward by his successors, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, as well. Particularly, the composite dialogue process with Pakistan which was initiated by Prime Minister Gujral, re-initiated by A.B. Vajpayee and carried forward by Manmohan Singh. People-to-people contacts, bus service between Srinagar-Muzaffa-rabad and between other prominent cities of both the countries and organising cricket matches between two countries were positive moves at that time. Meanwhile, the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 stalled the entire composite dialogue process.

Since 2007 South Asia witnessed several cataclysmic political developments in India’s neighbouring countries. The people’s movement in Nepal, change in the form of government from monarchical to parliamentary form in Bhutan, loss of battle by the LTTE and the killing of its chief, V. Prabhakaran, assassination of the energetic leader Benazir Bhutto and civil society movement spearheaded by the judiciary in Pakistan were some such events in India’s immediate neighbourhood. A brief survey of India’s relations with the South Asian neigh-bours can bring out the successes and failures during the administration of the current Indian regime.

Recent Developments

Bhutan—Narendra Modi, after assuming power as the Prime Minister in 2014, in his first ever foreign visit, chose to visit Bhutan, India’s most trusted smaller, strategically important Hima-layan neighbour. Besides providing assistance for its different economic projects, particularly its five-year plan, India fixed the target of producing 10000 megawatt hydro-power by year 2020.

Nepal—It was given all possible assistance when there was a severe earthquake in 2015. While facing a lot of difficulties in the aftermath of the quake, India shouldered the responsibility of Nepal’s reconstruction and bringing its economy back on track. The schools, hospitals, roads were constructed. The resurgence of Nepali nationalism and intimacy towards China in a big way under the communist government comprising of the CPN-UML an CPN (Maoist) parties definitely bothers India.

Afghanistan—This remains a friendly country to India for centuries. In 2015 India dedicated and built its parliament and constructed an Indo-Afghanistan friendship dam, otherwise known as the Salma dam. Terrorism is an area of mutual concern where both the countries have agreed to cooperate.

Maldives—As a matter of friendly gesture, Maldives was given drinking water under operation “Neer” when it was not able to provide drinking water for its people due to its only water treatment plant in its capital city, Male, having caught fire. Meanwhile, it did not want any external intervention in its internal affairs when its democratically elected government led by Mohammed Naseed was dethroned.

Bangladesh—After several years of discussions finally, India and Bangladesh reached the land-boundary settlement permanently. The question of illegal Bangladeshi imigration is a burning issue in India, hogs the limelight of national dailies and is debated at the time of elections. At present, crossing of large number of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh is certainly putting pressure on its economy. Therefore, during her recent visit Sheikh Hasina requested our Prime Minister to exert pressure on the international community to defuse the ongoing Rohingiya crisis.

Sri Lanka—India and Sri Lanka’s cooperation is mostly visible in the economic arena. But India is interested to settle the problems of Tamils permanently in the post-ethnic war scenario. It wants Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment and grant more autonomy to the Tamils residing in the area. Crossing of waters by the fishermen of both the countries is always a grey area in the bilateral rapproche-ment.

Pakistan—Pakistan is the source of most of the major conflicts in the region. Efforts have been made by India to reduce tension between two countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopped over at Lahore briefly on his return from Afghanistan to greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the eve of his birth anniversary. This was given a befitting reply in form of a dastardly attack on the Pathankot air-base. Again in September 2016, the Uri army-base was targeted. Whereas this government claims to have succeeded on the foreign policy front, its Pakistan policy appears to be dicey and puzzling. There is no significant headway in regard to CBMs and the composite dialogue process stopped a decade back. It is opined by scholars that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was willing to strengthen relations with neighbours, now seems to have experienced obstacles in the whole process. In the event of the change of guard in Pakistan it is to be seen how the Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, cricketer-turn politician and now PM Imran Khan can be instrumental in reviving a good neighbourly policy with India.

Myanmar—Even though Myanmar did not like India’s military crackdown on terrorists in that country, it is not dissatisfied over India’s firm stand on Rohingya Muslims. Some steps on the Indo-Burma front can deeply impact Indian economy by increasing connectivity between the North-Eastern part of India. For instance, the completion of the Kaladhan multi-model transit-transport project would connect Haldia port of Kolkata with the North-Eastern States of India and significantly reduce the distance between and help in improving the economy of both the countries.


For decades China has emerged as the cause of a major threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India. It is an arduous task to defend the territorial integrity of the nation with the existence of hostile neighbours. While this government is busy in following the West-oriented economic and foreign policies, as far as China is concerned, India’s efforts have not been effective in chalking out a coherent strategy to deal with the threats from Beijing. China’s hawkish approach and military stand-off at the Doklamtri junction in Arunachal Pradesh for more than 70 days and clash with the Indian armed forces at the Sikim border last year over a miner issue and repeated incursions from time-to-time nonetheless worries India. Mean-while, the impact of the recent informal visit of the Indian Prime Minister to China on bilateral relations cannot be visualised immediately.

In fact, China’s policy of engaging South Asian countries and its investment there in economic and military projects in a big way is bothering India. For instance, it has started investing in and opening military-bases in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, and obviously Pakistan. Along with this, it has started encroaching in the Indian Ocean zone militarily. It is further widely publicised in several quarters about China’s intervention in South-China Sea, belt road initiative (BRI), aiming to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe, China-Pakistan Economic Curridoor (CPEC) intended to restrict India as a regional power.

Concluding Observations

The BJP Government led by Narendra Modi was indeed talking much of improving relations with the neighbours after he was swern in as the Prime Minister. Now that seems to have been slowed down. In the given politico-strategic dynamics and complex regional environment, India’s ambition to emerge as a great power and willing to be part of larger security regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), perma-nent member to the UN Security Council, or part of any G-20 or environmental safeguard regime is apparent. It is rightly stated “friends can be changed but countries have to co-exist with their neighbours”. The sorry state of affairs is that now India is tilted towards the US and European powers at the expense of neighbours. This does not augur well for the national interest of the country in the long run. It is further argued that India’s place in the world can be determined by its place in the immediate neighbourhood. On the other hand, overcoming the challenges posed by China as an economically, technologically, militarily superior country certainly is an uphill task before the present dispensation.

In this situation, India together with its neighbours has to follow a multi-pronged strategy of bargaining in multilateral fora in the areas of global concerns. Since long at the inter-national level India was commanding respect as a peace-loving country of the world. India was a great leader. However, in recent years this posture has been seriously diminished and facing scathing criticisms. In the domestic sphere, India is being confronted by a myriad of challenges like caste violence across nation, demand for reservation by different groups, communal pogrom in various parts of the country, language politics, massive unemployment in urban areas. These are worsening the conditions day by day. In addition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal links with the RSS and its impact on policy decisions are also fundamentally questioned by the Opposition parties and intelligentsia of the country.

It is to be admitted that relations with the neighbours cannot be operated in the ambit of a zero-sum game. In this connection, it can be said only changing the names of different initiatives would not serve India’s objective to emerge as a great power; what is required is a well thought-out policy-strategy, treating all neighbours on an equal footing, proper utilisation of diplomatic and intellectual talent that can help in wiping out misapprehensions and misperceptions against India which in turn would largely increase trust among neighbours and make the South Asian region peaceful and India a vibrant country.

Dr Duryodhan Nahak is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, PGDAV College (Morning), University of Delhi.

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