Facing trouble from all side, India needs to reboot ‘neighbourhood first’ policy

While the China – Pakistan axis is well established, there is now a possibility of Nepal moving into this anti-India orbit

India, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Galwan Valley, Ladakh, faceoff, neighbourhood first
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood policy is slowly but surely unravelling. Three of India’s immediate neighbours – China, Pakistan and Nepal have problems with New Delhi. Photo: Twitter

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood policy is slowly but surely unravelling. Three of India’s immediate neighbours – China, Pakistan and Nepal have problems with New Delhi. While the China – Pakistan axis is well established, there is now a possibility of Nepal moving into this anti-India orbit. Even a loose tie-up of these three countries does not bode well for India which needs a stable neighbourhood more than ever before when the country is facing multiple challenges.

India’s economy was not in great shape even before the pandemic.

With the lockdown, it plummeted further and rating agencies predict negative growth for the country. The government is in a tough situation, a health emergency, eye-ball to an eye-ball confrontation with China in Ladakh and to top all this, tiny Nepal flexing its muscles. All this when New Delhi needs to bring back growth. For that, the first requirement is a stable neighbourhood. Significantly the neighbourhood is red-hot right now.

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How did the situation come to this?

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Some of it has to do with China’s aggressive moves in Ladakh. Much has to do with India’s so-called muscular foreign policy projected by Prime Minister Modi. Former UPA prime minister Manmohan Singh was derided and ridiculed by the BJP for his soft approach. Modi promised a tough no-nonsense foreign policy in keeping with his strongman image, so dear to the party.

Decisive strong leadership, personal chemistry with world leaders and the myth spread by Modi lovers that India’s prestige has risen in the world under him, sounds hollow at the moment. Only a novice will believe that tough issues can be resolved by personal equations between leaders. Take Modi and Xi Jinping. China’s President came calling as Modi took office in 2014. Modi, has a special affection for China, having visited that country four times as chief minister of Gujarat when Europe and America refused to entertain him, as the Gujarat riots in 2002 happened during his watch.

Yet those 18 meetings (many in multi-lateral forums) between the two have not made much of a difference. Personal chemistry with US President Donald or Chinese President Xi Jinping can make little difference in foreign and strategic affairs. Each country looks out for its national interests. There are no friends or enemies only interests between nations. Trump may go on and on about his friendship with Narendra Modi, but in a moment he switches off when he attacks India for high tariffs slapped on US imports.

Similarly, the Chinese President may have visited Ahmedabad and gave the perfect photo op by sitting on a swing in Gujarat, he also entertained Modi in his home province.

Then there was Wuhan and Mahabalipuram. Yet China has been aggressively pursuing its own agenda. Its support for Pakistan has become more strident. Raising Kashmir at the UNSC and having a closed-door discussion on Kashmir, was to help its all weather friend. And to top it all, China has been making major inroads in India’s
neighbourhood. Nearly every South Asian nation, with the exception of India and Bhutan have signed in to Xi Jinping’s belt and road initiative (BRI) despite Delhi’s opposition.

China’s huge economic clout makes a huge difference for nations starving for infrastructure funding.

Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy has won it friends across the world, from Africa to Asia to Europe and Latin America. Considering all this India needs to tread carefully.

When he first took office in 2014, Narendra Modi punched all the right buttons on foreign policy. In fact, he arrived with a bang. By inviting all SAARC leaders to
attend his swearing-in, he created the right buzz. Admirers as well as critics praised the new Prime Minister’s shift of focus to the region.

He tried to make peace with Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was as eager. Modi invested time and energy on peace moves with Pakistan. However, Pulwana and the surgical strikes put an end to these efforts. Imran Khan tried to reach out when he first came. But relations with Pakistan deteriorated steadily and incidents along the LoC keep recurring. India and Pakistan may not be at war, but firing along the border continues, casualties are reported on both sides. And the army
is on alert.

Unfortunately, the fact that strong action against Pakistan pays rich electoral dividends for the BJP, it is a major hindrance in bringing down temperatures along the LoC. But it is time to lower the rhetoric. Home Minister Amit Shah’s declaration in Parliament last year that India would take back Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (POK) as well as Aksai Chin, may have been greeted with delight by BJP supporters, but China was obviously not amused.

Much of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also runs through POK and is at the centre of the BRI. So POK is central to China for its economic and strategic interests and therefore China certainly took note. Perhaps Shah should be advised to stop making exaggerated claims in a bid to please the BJP’s domestic support base. So it is time to ask the party big mouths to stop raking up foreign policy issues.

Loose talk can harm relations with neighbours and sully the atmosphere. India has long taken Nepal for granted. Confident that bonds of common religion and culture, an open border and thousands of Nepalese citizens working in India, are enough to sustain ties. Muscle flexing by India by allowing 2015 blockade, which caused untold
misery to ordinary Nepalese has evaporated some of the goodwill that Nepalese have for India.

Nepalese Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli, like most leaders elected with a huge mandate, was losing much of his sheen in office. Persistent ill-health and incompetence led to calls for his resignation.

“The best thing that happened to Oli was India inaugurating the Lipulekh road last month. Suddenly Nepalis were united across party lines and suddenly demands for his resignation went quiet buying hims some time. But he is enfeebled both health-wise and politically,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times.

He does not believe that Nepal is ready to step into the Chinese orbit just yet. But India must begin talks and try to resolve differences before they become disputes.
It is time for Prime Minister Modi to get back to his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. The focus now will primarily have to be China as the two Asian powers try to resolve their differences.

The India-China tension will take time to cool. But Delhi needs to also pay attention to its South Asian neighbours. Time for Modi to take stock of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and most of all, Pakistan. It is no use having excellent ties with the US and Europe if we cannot manage our neighbourhood.

India’s big power aspirations will go nowhere unless India can live in peace with its neighbours.

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