As such the Neighbourhood First Policy (NFP), which accords primacy to nations in India’s periphery, has always been the priority of Indian foreign policymakers. Lately, the policy seems to have gained more impetus and vigour as exemplified by the visit of PM Modi to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Thimphu. These much-anticipated visits turned out to be yielding positive results. A closer look at the policy becomes important at a time when geopolitical turbulence prevails in the region.
Past experience can suggest that an NFP with Pakistan is rocky, at best. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said earlier this month after scrapping of Article 370 from Indian Constitution, “Hope no one gets a neighbour like ours”, following Pakistan’s step to cut trade downgrade diplomatic ties with India after the abrogation of Article 370. The estrangement between India and Pakistan has weakened the idea of South Asia as a region. Avoiding worst rather than achieving the best is the idea which is driving relations between the two. It is of utmost importance to defuse tensions by bringing both sides together to discuss the impasse leading to a resumption of a peace dialogue.
Political instability has been common in the South Asian region. Behind this policy (NFP) of the government lies the larger vision of peaceful coexistence, shared prosperity, economic development and better connectivity in the region which is not possible as long as political turmoil remains in neighbouring countries. Recent political crisis in the Maldives and Sri Lanka not only questioned democratic legitimacy and made situations worse in these countries, but also made New Delhi uncomfortable. In such cases, NFP becomes clueless and works helplessly on wait and watch but don’t interfere principle. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and subsequent withdrawal of the United States leaves India in a similar dilemma. The only option left with India in these situations, I feel, is to cooperate with whosoever holds the power.
The asymmetry of India in relation to its neighbours is another feature of South Asian region. The predominance of India in the region has had an intimidating impact on its small neighbours. India’s neighbours have often perceived India as a ‘big brother‘ seeking to translate its physical domination of the region into a political and economic one. India’s actions have always raised concerns no matter how benevolent India’s intention is. According to C. Raja Mohan, despite having the geographical advantage, it is always difficult for the regional hegemon to have good relations with neighbouring countries.
It is a strange fact that despite sharing the second-largest boundary with India, China does not seem to be much of an integral part of India’s NFP. Either it’s a weak logic which equates the idea of ‘Neighbourhood First’ with South Asia in general and SAARC in particular or an explicit prejudice of India against China on grounds of the latter’s dominance in the region. Foreign policy can’t succeed if it is exclusively and entirely driven by countering China notion. Nepal’s proclivity towards China can be better explained by India’s failed delivery rather than China’s deeds on the economic front. As C Raja Mohan argues, instead of attempts to counter-balance China in the Indian subcontinent, India should focus on developing a good neighbourhood policy based on subtle diplomacy along with catering to the economic and infrastructural needs of the region.
The NFP can’t succeed without an active SAARC. Professor S.D. Muni argues that a dead SAARC will only make India’s Neighborhood First Policy more difficult and its international image unpalatable. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a regional grouping, has been dormant since 2014, when its last summit was held in Kathmandu, Nepal. India has attributed this impasse on Pakistan’s relations with India and other SAARC nations. Thereafter, India has tried to utilise the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which includes all SARC countries except Pakistan, as a replacement of SAARC. However, BIMSTEC has its own inadequateness citing its narrow and limited scope of charter. Evidently, ‘inclusion and exclusion’ approach can’t work in the long run as it will nullify the idea itself. Hence, SAARC can’t remain irrelevant and dormant for so long.
After assuming charge as External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar revised NFP a bit. He asserted on a “generous NFP”. India has the primary responsibility to work towards boosting connectivity as it is the largest economy of the region and its growth can help lift ties with the neighbours. But New Delhi should also not ‘over-negotiate’.
Also, it is a unanimously accepted fact that India has a long history of delayed delivery of projects. India needs to learn to deliver on time. There is always a room for doubts and suspicions and there is always an alternate player who can actually deliver with lesser time and greater expertise and resources per se. India’s policies should display a sense of belonging to the region or a desire to work with the neighbourhood for greater integration and cooperation.