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India s Neighbourhood Policy: Challenges and Prospects Angana Das* Abstract The paper analyzes India s policy towards its immediate neighbourhood and tries to draw relevant inferences from India s recent
India s Neighbourhood Policy: Challenges and Prospects Angana Das* Abstract The paper analyzes India s policy towards its immediate neighbourhood and tries to draw relevant inferences from India s recent efforts to build peace in South Asia. In this study, India s immediate neighbourhood refers to SAARC member states and Prime Minster Narendra Modi s foreign policy laid strong emphasis on neighbourhood first policy that prioritizes strengthening India s relations with its immediate neighbours. This paper traces the evolution of India s neighbourhood policies over the years and studies the approaches adopted by different leaders. The renewed impetus towards India s neighbourhood in the region under the Narendra Modi led government has been discussed in detail. It is argued that India s recent neighbourhood practices such as strengthening bilateral ties, diplomatic engagements, sub-regionalism, elements of continuity or change and their applicability to establishing peace in the region has made a great impact in the region. The complex regional dynamics, seen notably in India s relations with Nepal and Pakistan that serve as roadblocks in implementing a coherent neighbourhood policy, are teased out. The paper puts forth newer prospects of integration and offers a set of recommendations for sustained engagement between India and its neighbours in order to build peace in the region. A nation s destiny is linked to its neighbourhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her neighbours. (Narendra Modi s address at the general debate of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly) Angana Das has done her Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building from Jamia Millia Islamia and Bachelors in Political Science from University of Delhi. She has undertaken research and advocacy work in development and media organizations such as OneWorld Foundation India, Hindustan Times Edge, PRS Legislative Research, National Commission for Women and Save the Children through internships and consultancy. She is interested in alternative approaches to peacebuilding practices, peace education, gender studies and community development. Her previous works include research on the role of arts based approaches such as theatre, music and arts education in the creative transformation of conflict and children affected in armed conflict. India s Neighbourhood Policy: Challenges and Prospects 19 Introduction India as a geographical entity has a unique character. It shares its boundaries with nations greatly varying in their size, resources and strength. These nations include Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. India has struggled to maintain stable and strong relations with its neighbours in a region considered to be the least integrated in the world. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had once famously said You can change your friends but not neighbours (Vajpayee 2003). For India to play a vital role in the emerging multi-polar world politics, it is important to develop enduring linkages between its domestic priorities and its foreign policy objectives. Political and socio-economic development of India is largely dependent on a stable, secure and peaceful neighbourhood. C. Raja Mohan argues that without enduring primacy in one s own neighbourhood, no nation can become a credible power on the global stage (C. R. Mohan, India s Neighbourhood Policy: Four Dimensions 2007). Rajamohan and S. D. Muni argue that for India achieving the objective of becoming one of the principal powers of Asia will depend entirely on India s ability to manage its own neighbourhood (S. M. Mohan 2004). This paper traces India s policy towards its immediate neighbourhood and tries to draw relevant inferences from India s recent efforts to build peace in South Asia. In this paper, India s neighbourhood refers to South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. The Kathmandu Declaration adopted on November 27 th, 2014 at the culmination of the 18 th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal proclaimed speeding up the process of regional development and cooperation as its aim. It recognized that after three decades of the organizations existence, it was time to reinvigorate SAARC and revitalize the bloc as an effective vehicle to fulfill the developmental aspirations of the people (Modi, Full text of Narendra Modi s sppech at the 18th SAARC summit. Press Information Bureau. 2014). This declaration was an outcome of the increasing urge felt by the South Asian countries to unite and develop together as a region. The Heads of State present at the summit expressed their strong determination to deepen regional integration for peace, stability and prosperity in South Asia by enhancing cooperation in trade, energy, security, infrastructure, connectivity and culture; and implementing projects in a prioritized, result-oriented and time-bound manner. The stage for this this critical outcome was set on the occasion of Narendra Modi s swearing in ceremony as the Prime Minister of India on 26 May, 2014 to which he extended an invitation to heads of the government of all 20 Jindal Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 4, Issue 1 SAARC countries. It was a clear indication of his desire to strengthen India s ties with its immediate neighbors. The SAARC summit was an extension of the Indian state s emphasis on expanding economic cooperation, explicitly linking the welfare of the neighbourhood to the growth of the Indian economy. In the two years since Modi assumed office, his term has been marked by extensive engagements, deliberations and discussions at the diplomatic level between India and its neighbours. However the formulation and implementation of a coherent neighborhood first policy has had to face its share of hurdles. Evolution of India s relations with its neighbours Over the years, India has struggled to forge strong neighbourhood relations despite its geographical proximity and historical, religious, economic, ethnic and cultural linkages with neighbouring states. Even though SAARC has provided India with a platform to interact with its immediate neighborhood and regular visits between head of states are also common, however, there is an impression of neglect (Behuria, Pattanaik and Gupta 2012) in the region. India has focused more on managing [its] relationships with [its] neighbours rather than shaping it and giving direction to it with a long term objective and vision in mind (Behuria, Pattanaik and Gupta 2012). This section describes the steps taken by India to engage with its immediate neighbours post independence. It reflects on India s failure to engage in proactive diplomacy vis-à-vis its neighbors and to inspire the necessary confidence in its neighbors to deal with India as a friend and not as a power seeking to maximize its influence at the cost of others in the neighborhood. S.D. Muni identifies five problem areas in India s approach towards the neighborhood: (a) the lack of a balanced political perspective; (b) the power differentials; (c) India s economic clout; (d) extra-regional powers; and (e) mindsets, diplomatic styles and personalities. He argues that undue insistence on (or even encouragement of) bilateralism evokes avoidable fears and suspicions of Indian dominance and allows anti-indian forces to exploit the situation to their advantage. Bilateral goals can be best achieved through a multilateral route especially because neighbours feel more comfortable in a regional design that incorporates bilateral priorities and concerns (S. Muni 2003). Post independence, through the 1950s and 1960s India s foreign policy was driven by idealism, the chief architect being Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. He focused on meeting the domestic challenge India s Neighbourhood Policy: Challenges and Prospects 21 of consolidating independence and economic revitalization of the nation. Nehru chose the path of non-alignment in the face of a bipolar world order shaped by the politics of the Cold War, arguing that India would have to plough a lonely furrow (Appadorai 1982). India s defeat in the 1962 Indo-Chinese border war exposed her to the hard realities of international power politics. The subsequent Indo- Pakistan War of 1965 severely challenged India s prevailing foreign policy stance and led to a shift towards adoption policies, which held security as the prime Indian national interest. Muni describes diplomatic styles and personalities as one of the areas that define India s approach towards the neighborhood. Indira Gandhi after coming to power in 1966 asserted that the problems of developing countries needed to be faced not merely by idealism, not merely by sentimentalism, but by very clear thinking and hard-headed analysis of the situation (Appadorai 1982). For the next few years, establishing sub-continental hegemony in order to secure its own interests became the overriding goal of Indian foreign policy. Though India defended its role in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 on the ground of its national security being threatened by the humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan and after requests to the U.N. to act against Pakistan failed to yield results. However, despite all justifications, the role played by India in the emergence of Bangladesh is viewed even today as an evidence of regional apprehensions. The crisis contributed to inciting fear in the region that India through its power has the ability to alter the geo-political landscape of South Asia. This regional fear psychosis was reinforced with India s militarily involvement in Sri Lanka in In November 1988 the involvement of Indian military in Maldives to foil an attempted coup on the island reinforced the over-bearing presence of India in the region. In the initial years, India chose to deal with its neighbourhood by engaging in bilateral talks and treaties and not in a regional framework. This decision of India gave rise to a feeling among the neighbouring countries that India uses bilateralism as an instrument of coercive diplomacy. It is important to implement a regional design that incorporates bilateral priorities and concerns and creates a balance in the power differentials. But the only regional arrangement that existed in South Asia was the SAARC that has struggled to remain relevant. Following deliberations and negotiations for about five years, the establishment of SAARC was agreed to in 1985 only after two operational constraints were built into it, namely, to take decisions on the basis 22 Jindal Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 4, Issue 1 of unanimity; and to avoid bilateral and contentious issues from its deliberations. Muni argues even after these constraints, or may be because of them, the evolution of SAARC has been protracted and tardy. It has failed to live up to its promise. Strained bilateral relations and political difference between SAARC members, especially the persistent conflict and tension between India and Pakistan have been responsible for the failure of this regional design to make any substantial contribution to the growth of the region. In the 30 years of its existence, SAARC has missed 12 of its annual summits largely because of bilateral issues between its members. It accounts for only 2 percent of the region s global trade and not more than 10 percent of regional trade. Nearly six hundred million South Asian people continue to live below the poverty line (of US $1.25 a day) despite two commissions set up by SAARC to devise means for poverty alleviation in the region (S. D. Muni 2015). In the 1990s, India adopted new economic policies and reforms. Changes in the domestic sphere started being reflected in India s foreign policy objectives of promoting regional cooperation through trade and commerce by creating a new strategic environment. I.K. Gujral became Foreign Minister in June 1996 and then Prime Minister in March At the core of his ideas was the belief that as the largest country in the region, India could afford to be more generous while protecting its fundamental interests (Dutt 2007). Instead of viewing the security dilemma in South Asia as conflictual in nature and defining their interests in self-help terms, efforts were made to create a social structure in which states trust one another to resolve disputes without war. Hence, with The Gujral Doctrine, India made an attempt to assure the region of its support through the policy of providing unilateral concession to neighbours in the sub-continent without seeking reciprocity. Rajiv Sikri puts forth the view that it is imperative for India to evolve a coordinated and coherent strategy vis-à-vis its neighbours (Sikri 2009). The two governments led by National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ( ) and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ( ) respectively pursued the Gujral doctrine by paying greater attention to SAARC and expanding economic and security links with neighboring countries. Under the UPA s rule of ten years, India attempted to strengthen economic ties, supported Afghanistan s candidature for full membership of SAARC, opened up to observers in SAARC to broaden the regional organization s strategic framework and carried out projects like the South Asian University to reinforce the cultural and people-to people dimensions of regional cooperation (S. D. Muni 2015). However, these efforts were overshadowed by the looming concern of strained bilateral relations and non-delivery of promised actions India s Neighbourhood Policy: Challenges and Prospects 23 on India s part. India s ties with Sri Lanka and Nepal deteriorated, partly because of domestic compulsions, its ideology and dependence of the government in New Delhi on its regional coalition partners. After the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, bilateral relations with Pakistan also suffered a great jolt. Not much happened on the promises made on the diplomatic front with Bangladesh. Meanwhile the growing Chinese influence in South Asia, deepened the trust deficit between India and its neighbors. Despite efforts such as bilateral engagements and diplomatic encounters, India has never been able to develop a well-defined neighborhood policy. Indian interest in the neighborhood has been rather sporadic, driven either by critical internal developments in neighboring countries or the growing influence of some external power (Behuria, Pattanaik and Gupta 2012). Modi s neighbourhood policy: renewed impetus in the region Shyam Saran argues that the logic of geography is unrelenting and a stable, friendly and peaceful, neighbourhood would help reduce political, economic and military burdens on India (Saran 2005). In order to build a peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked neighbourhood, India needs to take the initiative of strengthening neighborhood relations and forge a concrete neighborhood policy that will benefit the region as a whole. This section describes the salient features of India s policy towards its neighbors under the present government which assumed office in May Narendra Modi is pursuing vigorous regional diplomacy by engaging with neighboring nations and building political connectivity through dialogue. Modi has appreciated the much-neglected fact that foreign policy begins at the nation s borders (C. R. Mohan, Five point someone. The Indian Express 2014). His first initiative in this direction was extending an invitation to all heads of government of SAARC countries for his oath taking ceremony. It was a clear indication of his desire to strengthen India s ties with its immediate neighbors. Somewhere, there has been a realization that unless the reasons for the steady loss of Indian influence in the region over the last many decades is addressed and dealt with, it is difficult for India to emerge as a global power. Thus Rajamohan aptly proclaims: An India that fails to reclaim its primacy in the subcontinent, Modi can now see, can t really make a lasting impression on the world beyond (C. R. Mohan, Five point someone. The Indian Express 2014). Under previous governments, many a times New Delhi was unable to make use of strategic opportunities 24 Jindal Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 4, Issue 1 due to domestic political compulsions and pressure. For instance, under Dr. Manmohan Singh, the coalition government at the centre due to domestic political pressure from the opposition could not make full use of its capacity to transform its relations with South Asian neighbors. With respect to the actions taken by Modi till now, it is evident that he understands the importance of complementing both political relations and economic initiatives. Hence, he has made conscious efforts to build and maintain personal contacts with SAARC leaders. Through his visits to Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, Modi made efforts to establish routine contacts with these neighbours rather than mere photoops that are generally part of regular bilateral or SAARC summits. In fact, according to Modi, he chose Bhutan as his first foreign visit destination because of the unique and special relationship that the two countries shared. During the visit, he declared his governments aim of expanding bilateral ties and termed the relationship between two countries as Bharat to Bhutan (B2B) relations. He also suggested doubling the scholarships provided to Bhutanese students in India and offered help in setting up a digital library of two million books and periodicals in the Himalayan nation (Jacob 2014). Modi became the first Indian prime minister in seventeen years to visit Nepal in August and thereafter in November During his first visit to Nepal, Modi stressed on the fact that failed promises of the past should not act as speed-breakers in the future journey of these countries to prosperity together. In Nepal, India is perceived as a neighbour with a big gap between promise and delivery and also one that interferes in Nepal s internal politics. India announced a soft credit line of $1 billion for infrastructure, irrigation and energy projects. Modi took up the work of starting the 5,600 MW Pancheshwar project, which remained stalled for 18 years after the agreement. He assured the Nepali side that India will not want Nepal s electricity or power for free: We will buy it, and that alone will change the face of Nepal We will provide power to you now, but 10 years hence, you will remove our darkness, he said, hinting India will move fast on the implementation of projects now (Y. Ghimire 2014). Deliberations and discussions are presently being carried out to agree upon the major issues such as the sharing of water and its benefits between Nepal and India and putting a value to the benefits in the project s Detailed Project Report (DPR). Energy from the project that is to be developed jointly by India and Nepal will be divided equally as per bilateral treaties. However, the sharing of the benefits and water from the reservoir like irrigation and flood control are yet to be agreed in terms of price and quantity (Pangeni 2016). India s Neighbourhood Policy: Challenges and Prospects 25 Modi emphasized on the idea of trans-himalayan regionalism during his visit to Bhutan and Nepal and reiterated its significance of being the keystone for Asian cultural, environmental, political and regional security. The effective articulation of India s policy towards these countries and his instant rapport with the people helped in bridging the communication and confidence gap that had crept in for the past few years in mutual relations between India and these countries (S. D. Muni 2015). This shift in the mindset of people in these neighbouring countries towards India was once again tested when India-Nepal relations hit a rough patch in September 2015 hinting at the unpredictable nature of foreign relations between states. Modi s visit to Bangladesh with West Bengal Chief
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