Since being sworn into office as India’s fifteenth prime minister, Narendra Modi has pushed for greater engagement and closer cooperation with India’s neighbors. Lamentably, India’s immediate neighborhood has suffered for years from neglect by a lumbering hegemon that was all too often myopic in its vision for the region, preoccupied with its own domestic challenges, and unable to deliver on commitments made.
The obvious result of the power vacuum was that India’s smaller neighbors turned to countries that could walk the talk and deliver on their promises. Sri Lanka doubled down on China and encouraged Chinese investment. And when two Chinese submarines waded into the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, with Colombo’s invitation, India sulked. But it had only itself to blame.
Historically, the smaller states in the subcontinent have attempted to leverage India’s preponderance of resources and power to secure their own interests. India has exercised hard power in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to preserve the integrity of these states or to alleviate the suffering of a people by hostile states.
India has activated its forces to assist in rescue and rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and, more recently, after the earthquake in Nepal. But classical balance-of-power theory suggests that smaller states will more often than not attempt to balance the dominant actor to the extent possible. The dramatic rise of China in Asia provided many of India’s smaller neighbors a more than effective counter-weight, which, coupled with India’s own neglect of its periphery, saw a significant increase in Chinese influence in the neighborhood to the detriment of India’s.
Since coming to power in May 2014, the Modi government has followed what some call a “Neighborhood First” policy, predicated on greater engagement with India’s neighbors, improved economic and geographic connectivity and increased nonreciprocal assistance, from financial aid to infrastructure development. But what are the implications and outcomes of this “Neighborhood First” policy in India’s immediate neighborhood?
In many ways, Pakistan is the easiest piece of this puzzle because it is, to borrow a Donald Rumsfeld aphorism, a “known-known.” Pakistan’s national security managers view their state as the ideological antithesis of India, an idea that finds resonance time and again in Pakistan Army literature. It follows then that for the Pakistani establishment, the Kashmir issue represents a subset of what they view as their enduring struggle against India.
To put it another way, resolving Kashmir, as intractable as it is, will not put an end to the India-Pakistan conflict, at least not to the satisfaction of Pakistan. Those arguing that Modi’s Pakistan policy is a “failure” don’t get the point. If anything, Modi has shown that his government has no particular interest in chasing chimerical solutions for “peace” centered on Kashmir, like governments past. His goals vis-à-vis Pakistan are in fact relatively modest: “manage” the border by retaliating against Pakistan’s intransigence (but keeping it at a tactical level), turn up the heat on Pakistan internationally for its use of terrorism, and then more or less ignore Pakistan.
Where Modi’s government does deserve criticism is in the unnecessary commentary by some of its ministers on Pakistan. These sorts of puerile taunts may help the BJP score political points domestically, but are viewed with concern internationally and do more harm than help India’s case. If the idea is to ignore Pakistan, then the Modi government ought to do just that rather than take potshots at India’s western neighbor for domestic consumption.
In Nepal, the Constituent Assembly delivered a constitution that sparked protests in parts of the country, primarily in the Terai regions bordering the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Modi government appeared to be incensed at the leaders of the Constituent Assembly for ignoring its requests for a fair representation for the Madhesi and Tharu peoples, who have close cultural and ethnic linkages with residents on the Indian side of the border.
India retaliated by enforcing an unofficial blockade along the border with Nepal, severely depriving the land-locked country of essential goods, including fuel and food supplies. India has always been a convenient whipping boy for all of Nepal’s ills, whether real or imagined, even when it offers assistance with the best of intentions.
The Modi government should have therefore known that strong-arm tactics were certainly going to be counterproductive. Nepal today is in the midst of a historic transition. No constitution is perfect, as even BR Ambedkar, the principal architect of India’s own constitution observed, but can mature and evolve.
India should not be seen on the wrong side of history as the country that tried to stonewall attempts by a people to give themselves a workable framework of governance, however flawed the Indian government may believe that framework to be. The Modi government is better off working behind the scenes to influence changes to accommodate the aspirations of the Madhesi and Tharu.
There is better news where India’s relationship with Bangladesh is concerned. Indo-Bangladesh ties have been on an upward trajectory for some time, and the land boundary agreement (LBA) concluded between Modi and his counterpart Sheikh Hasina over the chitmahals was significant in moving past the few irritants that continue to affect ties. The Modi government must press ahead by working with Bangladesh to resolve the Teesta River issue, which remains pending since the 2011 debacle.
The Sheikh Hasina government has proactively addressed India’s security concerns whether by targeting fake Indian currency circulation or by going after insurgent groups that seek shelter in Bangladesh. The Hasina government has also prosecuted those Jamaat-e-Islami razakars accused of participating in the Pakistan Army’s pogrom in 1971. However, the capacity of Islamist groups to target liberal voices in that country continues to be a source of concern for India.
Events in Sri Lanka have also proved fortuitous for India, beginning with the surprise victory of Maithripala Sirisena in the island nation’s presidential elections in January, and former President Mahinda Rajapakse’s defeat in the parliamentary elections in August this year. The Modi government has rightly tried to capitalize on the window of opportunity through a prime ministerial visit to Colombo during which a series of economic and strategic agreements were concluded, including an agreement for India to develop civil nuclear infrastructure in Sri Lanka.
Restitution for the Tamil minority has been slow-moving and complicated. The recent UN Human Rights Council resolution, where the demand for the appointment of foreign judges for the investigation of war crimes against Tamil minorities (a provision opposed by the Sirisena government with support from India) was effectively watered down, should pave the way for action promised by the Sirisena government. India, together with the U.S., must continue to encourage Colombo to see its commitments through to its people and to the international community.
In the Maldives, the ouster, conviction and imprisonment of former president Mohammad Nasheed portends a worrying relapse into authoritarianism in that nascent democracy. Clearly, the Maldives continues to lean towards China, and Indian pressure, including Modi’s decision not to visit the country during his tour of the Indian Ocean littoral earlier this year, did not work.
If anything, it has brought Male and Beijing even closer with the Maldivian Parliament passing a law that India fears might permit China to build bases on that country. India’s concerns about the rise of radical elements in the Maldives are exacerbated by the return to power of Gayoom loyalists (Gayoom is religiously conservative and has Ba’athist leanings). Lashkar-e-Taiba’s presence continues to grow in the Maldives, particularly in the outer atolls, and the country operates as a node from where the LeT supports terrorist activity in India.
The recent attack on President Yameen, allegedly by a hitherto unknown group with alleged ties to the Islamic State, is yet another indication of the growing radicalization in the Maldives. In a sign that Male is seeking to bury the hatchet with India, the Maldives Police Service invited Indian forensic specialists to participate in investigating the terrorist attack.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will also travel to Male in October, perhaps signaling an end to the recent coolness between the two countries. Not talking to a country’s leaders merely because events in that country don’t suit your national interests is seldom a recipe for a successful strategy, as the U.S. eventually found out in Cuba and Iran. Indeed, India’s former High Commissioner to the Maldives, AK Banerjee rightly, if quite bluntly observed that “[o]ur approach of not talking so far has been, quite frankly, stupid.”
Although a year isn’t nearly sufficient to adequately assess the performance of a government in the realm of foreign policy, the Modi government has demonstrated an intent to revitalize India’s engagement with its less contentious neighbors. There have been successes, as in the case of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, while there have also been what might be termed in tennis parlance as “unforced errors,” as in the case of Nepal.
But ultimately, and even as India’s smaller neighbors attempt to recalibrate their approach to India, their fundamental questions of India will include the following: Can India deliver on commitments it has made to them? Can it sustain this level of commitment and interaction? Can smaller economies benefit from closer integration with India’s growing economy? And will successive Indian governments be able to sustain the level of engagement and commitment to the region in the future?
Rohan Joshi is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution, focusing on Indian foreign policy and strategic affairs. He is a regular contributor to Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review and The Diplomat.
He tweets as @filter_c