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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

SUBCONTINENTAL DRIFT

India’s Neighbourhood First policy: More neighbourliness, less hoods

Is a rethinking of agenda and approach in order for India?

Update : 10 Jun 2024, 10:49 AM

Earlier this week, several heads of government and dignitaries from South Asia attended the inauguration of Narendra Modi’s third term as prime minister of India. In some ways it was a reaffirmation of that country’s geographical backyard, as it were, although one increasingly littered with bilateral animus and disputes, and outright muscling in -- from India’s perspective -- by the neighbours’ biggest hood: China.

That is of course the view from New Delhi. It’s far from that view in Islamabad, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Thimphu, Colombo, and Male. Unless New Delhi acknowledges this subcontinental drift, Modi’s so-called Neighbourhood First policy, which now has the good fortune of a chance to reboot instead of further regression, will be somewhat emasculated. A bit like Modi.

It’s all a matter of respecting dynamic POV, or points of view.

India has for several years trumpeted the aspect of being the world’s largest democracy -- in terms of population. It has less stridently exhibited the need to also be a functioning democracy, an effective democracy. During the campaign for recently concluded parliamentary general elections, the unbridled hate speeches given by a sitting prime minister, the interior minister, top officials of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, and several chief ministers of BJP-governed Indian states (including that of Assam, majority-Muslim Bangladesh’s significant and deeply communalist neighbour) were cases in point.

The results of the elections, which denied outright majority to the BJP and has led to a demanding coalition which is widely expected to be the BJP-led government’s Achilles heel, has also led, visibly, to the partial emasculation of the BJP and the hard-line Hindutva so beloved of that party. The inauguration of Modi, although expectedly flashy, was relatively less triumphalist than his inaugurations in 2014 and 2019.

The unlovely mojo of triumphalism that has permeated India over the past decade and infected its regional relations will need to similarly be dialled down for India to claw back the many advantages it has lost. A prescriptive mix of nuts-and-bolts foreign policy, outreach without arrogance, and positive optics needs to be the agenda for India’s regional relations. This applies to all of India’s neighbours, including Pakistan.

Politically and economically rocky Pakistan is frequently dismissed by triumphalist Indians as a failed state. Even so, it remains militarily and geo-politically significant. For starters, Pakistan, India’s most significant neighbour after China, is the lynchpin for anyone’s Afghanistan policy. China’s CPEC, or China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that links China’s Xinjiang province, over the Khunjerab Pass in Gilgit-Baltistan, to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in the far southwest of Balochistan province, will soon receive a massive financial boost. There are already plans to ensure this additional geo-political and geo-economic insurance for China, and a financial lifeline for Pakistan, remains open throughout the year.

Even though India claimed a check on this regional chessboard by landing a port-operating deal in Chabahar on Iran’s coast, located due west of Gwadar, China’s steady proliferation in Pakistan will remain a major worry coming as it does alongside major infusions of weapons and systems from fighter aircraft to air-sea-land defences. There is also the ever-present tension of militancy in Indian Kashmir, entirely homegrown on account of decades of administrative apathy and arrogance, but so easily fuelled by the sanctuary provided to that militancy by Pakistan.

At worst, things will get worse; in any case Pakistan is China’s ever-present threat of a low blow to India alongside China’s overt border disputes with India. At best, Pakistan will remain for India a lever to justify absolute domination in Kashmir, and for manufacturing ready rhetoric in India’s population- and communalism-heavy northern states to misdirect public opinion whenever governance fails.

India’s foreign policy in Bangladesh is largely brutalist

Such glibness cannot apply to others in South Asia, where India will need to truly stand and deliver on its Neighbourhood First promise.
Bangladesh, for instance, India’s significant other in South Asia. India’s establishment-fed foreign policy wonks might choose to not see it, blinded as they are by easy access to both prime ministerial orbits -- a G2G success story. But away from this government-to-government bonhomie, which in the public mind extends to shoring up domestic political needs, India suffers from significant P2P, or people-to-people trust- and optics-deficit in Bangladesh.

This runs contrary to the steady uptick in bilateral trade and other aspects, including the staggering aspect that, last year, 1.6 million Indian visas were issued to Bangladeshis. And, that Bangladeshis are now among India’s top three nationalities in arrivals, after travellers from the US, and before those from UK, and with spends -- shopping, medical treatments, tourism -- to match.
India’s foreign policy in Bangladesh is largely brutalist -- literally, if regular incidents of shoot-to-kill along the vast 4,096km-long border are considered.

Such foreign policy focuses on benefits accruing to Bangladesh on account of it permitting Indian goods to be transhipped via Bangladesh, back and forth between India’s east and its far-east.

There is also an unapologetic visa policy that, while logistically smoothened in the past year or so, refuses to acknowledge the financial heft which Bangladeshi travellers bring to India. This is unlike, say, Thailand’s visa-on-arrival or, occasionally (as operationalized until December 2024), a visa-free policy for Indians, using the transparent policy rubric of large tourism spends.

Water remains a persistent issue. There is of course the contentious matter of the Ganga/Padma waters, the treaty for the sharing of which is due for renegotiation and renewal in 2026. Then there is the Teesta river. Citing federal necessities -- water is a “state” subject in India, which requires acquiescence of a particular state in any riverine policy -- and the political economy needs of West Bengal, India has consistently backpedalled on any move towards according Bangladesh a proportionate share of waters of the Teesta. This has affected crop productivity and livelihoods in the Teesta basin in northern Bangladesh, and compelled Bangladesh to design alternative irrigation, and seek non-Indian help for solutions.

Indeed, as this column noted earlier this year (“Bangladesh and India: To fix what is broken,” published February 12, 2024), China formally stepped up in late-2023 to offer massive grants and aid to mitigate the multiple crises that beset the Teesta basin in Bangladesh. The response from India? Its foreign secretary visited Dhaka in May this year, when parliamentary elections were already in progress, to assure the leadership of India’s help and participation to secure the basin.

It has to be noted that this decades-delayed response came after the proposal showed that China’s development engineers, hydrologists, agricultural experts, and other “observers,” so to say, would be operating in an area right by the slim and strategically crucial Siliguri Corridor -- the so-called Chicken’s Neck. This corridor forms a tri-junction between Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and is a very short hop from the Tibet Autonomous Region.

There clearly needs to be a rethinking in India’s bilateral relations with Bangladesh if anything good is to come of it, especially at a time of massive Chinese input in Bangladesh’s national finances, and trade and investment. And, in its defence requirements. While India’s establishment still basks in the glory days of 1971, China -- which favoured Pakistan in the United Nations at the time against the idea of Bangladesh -- has a huge footprint in Bangladesh’s defence procurement.

Equally, a rethinking of agenda and approach needs to apply to India’s other neighbours, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. This will be addressed in a subsequent column.

Sudeep Chakravarti is Director, Center for South Asian Studies at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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