India’s engagement with Afghanistan has been positive and fruitful. The present government has taken every possible step to generate confidence across the Durand line. The embattled government of President Ashraf Ghani is the primary recipient of the current government’s magnanimity towards its smaller neighbours. After the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, successive Indian governments have followed the policy premise of the Gujral doctrine which extols the principle of ‘non-reciprocity’ while engaging with smaller neighbours. The completion of the Afghan Parliament funded by India was successfully overseen by the present government. Another major milestone was the progress of negotiations on the Trilateral Transit Pact along with Iran. However, the ethnic affinity of a Pashtun President towards ethnic brethren across the border has caused significant unease in South Block. Despite India’s economic and cultural soft power, Pakistan has been successful in making significant inroads into the Afghan state apparatus. There is not much that India can do about it as it is a bilateral engagement between two important neighbours which are organically linked through ethnic and religious bonds. However, India can still do more not by undermining the influence of Pakistan but by reaching a level of parity in terms of engagement with Afghanistan.
The engagement with Bangladesh has also witnessed the successful fruition of the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement which involved the long-awaited swapping of enclaves between the two countries. The enclave crisis was the result of colonial haste and ignorance whilst demarcating the boundaries of the subcontinent. This had left thousands of people stranded in numerous unsettled enclaves as citizens of one country but residing in territories surrounded by the other. The agreement has augmented security on the eastern borders which were the hotbed of illegal migration and other criminal activity. Taking a cue from the 2011 Protocol on the cognate security and demographic ramifications of the exchange process, the present government has successfully impressed upon its eastern neighbour that India is committed to the amicable solution of bilateral issues. However, all is not well on the eastern front. The longstanding agreement on the sharing of Teesta waters has been on the backburner. The problem is more political than diplomatic.
The 2011 agreement between India and Bangladesh was subject to the wrath of the Chief Minister of West Bengal who single-handedly drove roughshod over the deal. If the present government has to instill confidence in its eastern neighbour, it should not be hamstrung by petty political considerations of regional political parties. A positive sign in this regard was the invitation to former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse by Prime Minister Modi at his swearing-in ceremony despite stiff resistance by the former National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constituent All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
The present government’s diplomacy towards its most trusted Himalayan neighbour began with a bang but ended in a whimper. Prime Minister Modi’s maiden visit to Kathmandu broke the ice between India and Nepal which had set in due to scare mongering by Nepal’s domestic opposition. The visit also saw the ratification of the much-awaited Indo-Nepal Bilateral Motor Trade Agreement along with credit support to the cash-starved Nepal government to the tune of $1 billion. Along with the goodies came the Indian Prime Minister’s speech in Nepali at the Constituent Assembly. All this was undone by the uncompromising attitude of India on the Madhesi question and the longing of the Indian right to see Nepal being restored as a Hindu Rashtra. The secular credentials of the new Constitution coupled with the inept handling of the Madhesi issue by the current dispensation in Nepal led the present government to take draconian measures.
The economic blockade of Nepal, a claim vehemently denied by the government, came as a shocker both to the Nepal dispensation and the general populace. Despite New Delhi being in denial mode, there is a strong consensus among analysts that it is impossible to observe a blockade of such scale without a go-ahead from South Block. Such moves by the government have made the battle of the new republic even more difficult. Nepal has responded to this by displaying a pro-China tilt much to the chagrin of the mandarins in South Block.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party has taken over the reins of government, Indian foreign policy has oscillated between constructive dialogue and pulverisation of deviant behaviour on the part of neighbouring states. In line with the post-Cold War world order wherein the foreign policy of nation-states has followed the dictates of ‘capital’ resulting in a natural alignment with the biggest capitalist state, i.e. US, India has followed the same trajectory. The steady graduation of the Indo-US relationship from ‘strategic friendship’ to ‘strategic partnership’ has proved to be a natural bottleneck in Sino-Indian relations. The Indo-US nuclear deal, tripartite military exercise with US and Japan come close to what the Indian Left refers to as India becoming a “junior partner of the US”. There is not an iota of doubt that the current government is committed to a ‘neighbourhood first policy’ but continues to adhere to a cognate form of Nehruvian realism which India’s first PM had displayed with his Himalayan neighbours and in 1962.
It is necessary for the present government to understand that India needs to engage more with its immediate neighbours than with a distant global leader. Problems with neighbouring states continue to plague bilateral relations which in turn provide fodder to insolent and belligerent non-state actors to hold cooperation to ransom.
The Kashmir issue is the cardinal one in this regard. China also continues to raise concern on the northern and north-eastern border. Despite the fact that the current Member of Parliament representing Ladakh belongs to the BJP, Indians still require prior permission before visiting Demchok. On the north-eastern border, China continues to give indiscriminate stapled visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh.
India has an unparalleled diplomatic legacy which is a shared heritage of all dispensations that have been in power notwithstanding their ideological proclivities. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the present government to chart out a strategy which does not preclude the formation of a ‘regional security complex’, rather it lays the foundation of a ‘regional cooperative structure’. India has the wherewithal to accomplish this which includes tools of geo-economics and an overarching cultural superstructure. It just needs a spirited yet calculated move by India to engage its bellicose neighbours on contentious issues to see the real fruition of the government’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’.