The complexities of India’s Neighbourhood first Policy

India has opted for the Neighbourhood first policy which focusses on building peace in the neighbourhood for the development of the country, as this will lead to growth in the South Asian region.

Every nation desire to have peace and stability in its neighbourhood. It is a pre-requisite for the development of a nation. Being surrounded by neighbours who are hostile to a country might not be a favourable situation for the country or its national interests. Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said ‘friends can change but not neighbours who have to live together.[1]’ The idea of peace and stability is essential in the immediate neighbourhood for a country to prosper and elevate itself in the global world.

India has opted for the Neighbourhood first policy which focusses on building peace in the neighbourhood for the development of the country, as this will lead to growth in the South Asian region. The neighbourhood’s first policy aims to build connections with India’s neighbours in the south Asian region and strengthen its relations in areas of economy, education, research and science and technology etc.

When India started out with its foreign policy, it was largely idealistic and this is apparent in how India has more focus on principles and not on foreign policies as such. Idealism has been the major focus of India’s foreign policy post-independence and was only changed after the term of Nehru. Nehru was an idealistic person whose vision for peace and prosperity was largely flawed in the real-world scenario with the prominent case of Chinese aggression in 1962[2]. This lack of focus in realist thinking was a setback for India in the global arena and the country faced humiliation from around the world.

Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy

India’s foreign policy has evolved from idealist to realist in the last few decades. The policy began with the promise of a peaceful neighbourhood as well as development of the nation with its neighbours. India’s foreign policy was mostly shaped by the British and their policy of diplomacy by dependency. India began to advocate the need to have integration and harmony between the neighbouring nations and lend a hand to Nepal and Bhutan post-independence. Nehru, who was the Prime Minister as well as the minister of External Affairs, explained how a threat to the security of Nepal is also a threat to the security of India and hence there was a need to ensure peace and stability in the Indian neighbourhood. As part of this, a treaty of friendship was signed with Bhutan in 1949 and a treaty of peace and friendship with Nepal in 1950[3].

Foreign policy saw a change in its direction with the coming of Indira Gandhi. Her intervention in the Bangladesh war and the accession of Sikkim showed her assertive nature and the realist element of India’s new foreign policy. Indira Gandhi’s personality was greatly attributed to her foreign policy and decisions made by India. Although India explained the intervention in Bangladesh was for security reasons, there is a common belief that it was for India’s own regional aspirations.

Indira was assertive during her era and this was also a reason for the formation of the South Asian Regional Association for Regional Corporation. Although SAARC now has different motives now than it used to, its establishment was part of India’s initiative for regional corporations. SAARC was not effective in following the principles it set. Of the 38 years it had been established, only 18 meetings took place because countries had bilateral issues between them. But this time was also largely known for the political drama that had happened in the South Asian region. Regions like China and Myanmar were excluded from India’s foreign policy, while Afghanistan was included for various political reasons [4].

The next notable event that happened in India’s foreign policy was the introduction of the Gujral Doctrine by Inder Kumar Gujral in 1996, which aimed to strengthen India’s bilateral relations with its neighbours. While India was trying to maintain good relations with its neighbours, there was also a problem of how India was seen as a hegemon by the rest of the states, as India often took leadership of certain decisions. This concern over India’s growing power made other countries doubt India’s intentions in the first place.

Modi and Neighbourhood First Policy

Neighbourhood First Policy was Modi’s child and in a first attempt to nurture it, he called upon the members of SAARC for his oath taking ceremony. This was a significant move which was a sign to all the people that India was looking to strengthen its ties with its neighbourhood nations and help neighbours in the South Asian region. The common understanding was that if India needed to be a global power, it needed to be a regional power in South Asia. Modi reintroduced the concept of Neighbourhood first policy and changed the Look East Policy to Act East Policy. This was done in order to strengthen ties with the south-eastern countries. As part of this, Modi set out to Bhutan to discuss important matters between both nations.

The first few years in office, Modi heavily invested in India’s foreign policy and visited many nations and started building friendships with different leaders around the globe. Maintaining strong relations with other countries was difficult during Dr Manmohan Singh’s time due to the accommodation of interests of the coalition parties. A clash of interests was always pertinent. Modi made routine contacts with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan and made sure that their agenda of strengthening the south Asian region is still strong [5].

Modi set forth to visit Bhutan first because of the special and unique relationship they share and called this relationship Bharat to Bhutan (B2B). There were talks to double scholarships for Bhutanese students in India and help to set up a digital database of 2 million books and periodicals. Modi was also the first Prime Minister in seventeen years to visit Nepal two times in the same year. He spoke to Nepal about how they should forget the failed promises of the past and focus on the future of both nations. In Nepal, India is a country which has not fulfilled its promises yet and is always looked at with suspicion because, on numerous occasions, the Nepalese people have felt their sovereignty threatened.

Modi strengthened relationships between India and Bangladesh with the offering of a fresh line of credit of $2 billion. India and Bangladesh have always had disputes with respect to the border agreement. Modi set up talks and discussions about electricity, railways, and roads between both nations.

For the first time in 28 years, Modi was the first PM in India to visit Sri Lanka after Rajiv Gandhi. He wanted to rebuild the relationship between India and Sri Lanka as important. The same applies to Afghanistan. Modi wanted both nations to step away from violence and initiate good relations with each other. India and Maldives signed an agreement for defence actions as both nations realise the need for security measures. India assured the country of helping the nation with democratic institutions when needed. Maldives signed six contracts with India for defence corporations [6].

India has strengthened its relations with its neighbours after Modi came to power. Modi has emphasised the need to make good relations with neighbours and give them priority as part of his new foreign policy.

The complications of becoming friends with your neighbours

The sustaining problems between India and Pakistan in the backdrop has caused many problems for India in maintaining good relationships with other nations. India and Pakistan have had a history of wars and conflicts. Pakistan has always sought after opportunities to counter India, for example teaming up with China to counter India’s role as a growing power, providing space for terrorists to grow in order to promote terrorism in India. For the first time in many years, India and Pakistan officially declared in February 2021 that they will uphold the 2003 truce along the Line of Control (LoC).

Some of India’s concerns are about how terrorism is growing and has roots in Pakistan and about the government’s lack of involvement in eradicating it. The Indian Army responded to the terror attack at the army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, by conducting surgical strikes at multiple terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control based on attacks in India and the involvement of the neighbouring countries. In response to the cross-border terrorist attack on a convoy of Indian security forces in Pulwama, India successfully carried out an airstrike on a JeM training facility in Balakot, Pakistan. India and Pakistan still have a long way to go before they can finally trust each other.

Just like India’s relationship with Pakistan, the one with China is even more complicated. China had once humiliated India on a global platform after India initiated a hand of trust to China. China and India are in a competition to become a global player. China has been asserting its dominance in the South Asian region. It has controls in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives. China has been extending its influence in areas where India has previously had influence. China’s one belt road initiative has been rejected by India and they nodded their disapproval in joining because of issues of territorial sovereignty. There have been standoffs and clashes at both the borders and Indian soldiers have lost lives. This encouraged India to add more military facilities and India banned many Chinese apps. India’s Foreign Direct Investment in China stands at 0.43%. India has been trying to reduce investment from China and it is said there are currently 54 proposals from China that are not yet approved [7].

India is now limiting itself to a few nations and has been purposefully avoiding any negotiation with both Pakistan and Afghanistan. India is now advocating for BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral corporation) and both of these exclude Pakistan. India’s relationship with Afghanistan also hit a low after the Taliban takeover. India has been at an international forum talking against the human rights violations by the Taliban [8].

India’s and Nepal’s relations have also been straining because of issues relating to sovereignty. India recently built an 80 km long road to Mansarobar and some of it is built on the lines of Nepal in Lipu Lekh region. In reaction to Nepal being against this, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh claimed that it was totally built on Indian land. Ever since India made a blockade on Nepal in 2015, their relations have only worsened. This has led to increasing Chinese influence in the nation.

The relations between India and Sri Lanka are difficult to define because of the Chinese influence in the nation. China has been funding Sri Lanka for a while and the country has been going through an economic crisis. India has always had security concerns with Sri Lanka because of Chinese influence. China has been strategically encircling India from many areas and India should focus on economic diplomacy and manoeuvring of domestic politics to win back Sri Lanka.

Tensions arose between India and Bangladesh after the enactment of the Citizenship Act of 2019. The Bangladesh Prime Minister questions the move behind this intention. They believed that after the decades-long border dispute was solved between both nations in 2015, it was expected that relations would continue to be normal but it was not. Bhutan has signed a roadmap with China to resolve a decade-long conflict. India and China were involved in the Doklam issue previously, which strained relations between India and Bhutan because of the Chinese presence in the region. China has been forcing Bhutan to sign MoU with them.

The complications with being friends with your neighbour come at a cost which is unbearable for India now. India’s relationship with its neighbours is characterised by the growing Chinese influence in the region. The evolution of foreign policy also suggests the same. As China grew in power in the coming years, the security threats to India doubled. India now needs to focus on ideas of security and economic diplomacy with its neighbours. As China is a fast-growing power, its influence in the region can be threatening to the functioning of the nation. A need to balance power through mechanisms of negotiations, economic capabilities, diplomacy, and peace talks are required in the South Asian region.

Aleena T Sabu
Aleena T Sabu
Aleena T Sabu is an independent scholar who holds a master's degree in Politics and International Studies. Her areas of Interest include migration, diaspora, peace and conflict.