By Dr.Swaran Singh
New Delhi, June 8: Thanks to former President Abdulla Yameen’s pro-China policies as also his crackdown on the opposition on the eve of Prime minister Narendra Modi’s March 2015 state visit to the Maldives, not only that visit had to be cancelled at the very last minute but Modi could not visit the Maldives until the very end of his first term in office. Later that year, a major disruption of India’s supplies to Nepal (they called it blockade) saw China stepping in to supply 1.3 million litres of gasoline by sending one hundred tankers to Kathmandu via its Tibet border. Year 2016 saw terror attacks at Pathankot and Uri in India’s Jammu and Kashmir province derailing India’s relations with Pakistan and making the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) dysfunctional. The year 2017 saw India hitting headlines for a ten week-long Doklam crisis igniting anger and disaffection respectively China and Bhutan and 2018 ended with Pulwama suicide attack followed by India’s air strikes on Pakistan.
No doubt Modi’s hyperactive foreign policy in his first term had its moments of celebration yet immediate neighbourhood continued to be its nemesis dwarfing India’s efforts and seeing Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy ceding space to China’s ever expanding influence. But each of these episodes also became watersheds in redefining Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy making it ever more pragmatic as also far more assertive and nuanced. As first thing, this saw Modi taking India’s Neighbourhood First policy out of its limited bandwidth of competing with China’s five times bigger economic prowess and investments spree of its Belt and Road Initiative. Last two year saw Modi instead front-loading India’s unique and enduring religious-cultural, ethnic, linguistic people-to-people linkages with its neighbouring nations.
Last year saw Modi visiting Nepal twice back to back, having roadshows with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and paying at temples of Janakpur, Pashupatinath and Muktinath with last one being closer to the China border. Modi was the chief guest as Sri Lanka hosted the 2018 International Vesak Day — the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and nirvana. This saw him heralding his vision for twenty-first century resonating Buddhist axioms, citing Buddhist canons in chaste Pali and Sanskrit, praying and taking blessings at famous Seema Malaka temple in Colombo, and engaging in Buddhist discourses with monks in world famous tooth-relic Buddha temple in Kandy. This genre of engagement meant showcasing India’s advantages over China profit driven commercial connections. This new approach is, of course, was also being complemented by India increasing resource disbursement to space out China’s Belt and Road juggernaut.
Prime Minister Modi’s pragmatic approach saw him engaging Chinese leaders as well. This was aimed at ensuring maximum benefits with minimal costs for Modi’s efforts at recuperating of India’s enduring historical linkages with its neighbouring nations. This saw Modi visiting China five time in last five years while President Xi Jinping has only twice. Result was that the Doklam crisis of 2017 were followed by their April 2018 Wuhan informal summit marking a reset in China-India relations. Likewise, celebrating India’s engagement with the new government in Male saw Modi being the only foreign leader attending the swearing in during November last year.
Complimenting these religious-cultural links saw President Mohamed Solih’s India’s visit last December resulting in India extending $1.4 billion aid spanning over various credit lines and projects. In the midst of impending elections in both India and Maldives this March, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj became first foreign leader to visit Male accompanied by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to fine tune India’s promised aid and assistance. But nothing has marked Modi’s reclamation more than his snubbing of Pakistan and junking of SAARC. Starting from their outreach with the BRICS summit of October 2016, Modi has been promoting BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation) as his alternate frame of regional cooperation.
At the same time, reinforcing his dictum that ‘terror and talks can not go together’ Modi government has not even entertained questions on his possible meeting with Imran Khan at next week’s Bishkek summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Indeed, in spite of Pakistan Prime Minister’s repeated public posturing for reviving peace talks including his recent congratulatory phone call to Modi, Imran Khan was not invited to Modi’s second swearing in. This leaves little doubt about his vivid reassertion of India’s Neighbourhood First policy – sans Pakistan. But even here, coinciding with Modi’s second swearing in, a visit of China’s second most powerful leader, Wang Qishan, ensured that Islamabad had some reason for celebrations.
It is in this backdrop that this weekend is expected to herald the second chapter for Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy. Its second edition is expected to mark a shift from India’s immediate to extended neighbourhood and from disputed land borders to maritime expanse making Modi an Indo-Pacific Prime Minister. Only last month India was reported having set up an ‘Indo-Pacific desk’ in its Ministry of Foreign affairs. While last time, Bhutan had hosted Modi’s first foreign visit, Modi’s decision to begin his second term with visit to Sri Lanka and the Maldives — after inviting leaders of BIMSTEC, Mauritius and the Kyrgyz Republic to his swearing in — clearly underlines Modi’s expanded vision of India’s neighbours.
Apart from its geographical connotations, this first visit Maldives and Sri Lanka also underlines Modi’s assertive anti-terror posture that will see him expressing India’s solidarity with victims of Sri Lanka’s Easter terror attacks that killed 260 people including eleven Indians. Modi and Sirisena will have their second full-fledged formal meetings in as many weeks re-evaluating ongoing and planned partnership projects. Indian Prime Minister is expected to visit St Anthony’s Church, the site of first of Easter blasts in Colombo. This second edition of Modi’s Neighbourhood First will see India’s on the ground collaborating in building jointmanship in countering terror in its peripheral regions. While India and Sri Lanka have continued sharing real time information on terror threats, these attacks have seen a team of India’s National Intelligence Agency working on the ground in Colombo, rubbing shoulders with their Sri Lankan counterparts as they investigate into various components of the Easter terror attacks as also likelihood of presence of sleeper cells of the Islamic State.
India-Sri Lanka ties have remained remarkably cordial. In spite of accusations of India’s interference in historic defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa by the united opposition in 2015 elections, Modi has since hosted all of Sri Lanka’s leaders and cultivated warmth and mutual respect with all of them. This explains why India stayed at safe distance during Sri Lanka’s internal political upheavals during the last quarter of 2018. Result was visible in laudatory congratulatory messages that re-elected Prime Minister Modi received from Leader of Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and from President Maithripala Sirisena who attended Modi’s second swearing in last week and is hosting Modi in Colombo this weekend.
Same sentiment was also visible in the tone and tenor of messages coming from the Maldives President Mohamed Solih and former President Mohammed Nasheed who was recently elected as the Chair of their newly elected Majlis — the national parliament. Under the stewardship of Mohammed Nasheed all of eighty-seven newly elected members of national legislature, including the opposition, voted last week on their first resolution to invite Prime Minister Modi to address their Majlis. Such a vote is a legal requirement for any such Invitation to any foreign leader from the Chair of Majlis. This speech may see Modi not just heralding the second edition of his Neighbourhood First policy but also reviving his SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative that has remained dormant since it was launched during Modi’s last Indian Ocean tour during March 2015 as also providing further boost to his other pet project, Sagarmala, that Sri Lanka has already expressed desire to become part of. Conceived in the backdrop of 2005 Tsumami this included India developing its infrastructure along its long coastline and linking modernisation of ports to their feeder hinterland areas.
Like his Shangrila speech last June outlining India’s vision on the Indo-Pacific, Modi’s speech at Majlis of Maldives and his other interactions in Male and Colombo this weekend are expected to provide an outline of Modi vision for reclaiming this extended neighbourhood from China’s ever expanding influence. Implementing such a vision would, of course, have its own pitfalls and hiccups. Modi, for example, has to begin by addressing some of the persistent irritants like the Teesta River water sharing with Bangladesh, fishing trawlers crossing territorial waters of Sri Lanka, a pro-China left communist alliance in power in Nepal and even Bhutan, where democratic elections have often seen speeches airing discomfort with India gaining traction.
(The Author is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka)