Reaffirming his government’s neighbourhood first policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the first day of the new year greeted leaders of all neighbouring countries barring Pakistan. While the Pakistan exemption is understandable given that New Delhi-Islamabad ties have been rocky, the outreach to neighbouring countries is welcome.
It will be recalled that the neighbourhood first policy began with Modi 1.0 when the Prime Minister made Bhutan his first foreign port of call after taking office. However, since then several issues have hindered the neighbourhood outreach. The 2015-16 Nepal blockade saw a massive dip in ties with Kathmandu, which are yet to regain the level of trust that existed before. Meanwhile, the 2017 Doklam standoff with China made complications for our ties with Bhutan. And while we now have a seemingly friendly regime in the Maldives, our ties with Sri Lanka after the recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President have entered a cautious phase.
Meanwhile, we have largely had great relations with Bangladesh over the last five years. But government’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens have created disquiet in Dhaka. The anti-illegal Bangladeshi migrants rhetoric that BJP leaders are indulging in is making things uncomfortable for the friendly Sheikh Hasina dispensation.
Against this backdrop, it is wise that the Modi government is bringing the focus back on the neighbourhood. Besides, China is already waiting in the wings to increase its own influence in South Asian nations. If New Delhi is serious about treating this region as its strategic backyard, it must do more to allay neighbours’ perception that India doesn’t care about their interests. Junking domestic political moves like CAA that impact relations with neighbours would be a good start.