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Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi ushered in the New Year with a set of phone calls with some of India’s most important neighbours. He spoke to both the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa; he exchanged greetings with Bhutan’s monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. And he spoke to Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina, Nepal’s PM KP Sharma Oli, and Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. All these conversations indicate yet again the PM’s continued commitment to the government’s “neighbourhood first” policy and the special strategic, political, and economic place India’s smaller neighbours have in the country’s foreign policy matrix.
There are two elements of the neighbourhood policy that merit attention. South Asian Association of Regional Countries (Saarc) leaders were present at PM Modi’s swearing in when he first took office. When Mr Modi took oath for the second time last year, it was not Saarc, but leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) who were invited to the ceremony. This was the clearest sign that India would prioritise Bimstec as a regional grouping, for it believed that Pakistan’s presence made Saarc untenable. It is not a coincidence that four of the countries the PM reached out to are Bimstec members. But the organisation, beyond getting high political attention, has not been effective in boosting regional economic integration and connectivity.
But the greater concern is bilateral ties, especially in the backdrop of growing Chinese political and economic engagement in all these countries. In Sri Lanka, India displayed deft diplomacy in engaging with the Rajapaksas — but there is a slow return to both Sinhalese majoritarianism and a degree of authoritarianism. This will hurt Indian attempts to have a resolution of the Tamil issue. In Nepal, the Oli-led communist government has deepened cooperation with China on an unprecedented scale, brought in legislations to curb media and civil society, and has made no effort to address the issues of ethnic minorities. This will all undermine Indian efforts to have an inclusive and friendly Nepal.