When Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister in May this year, it was clear that he wanted to establish India as a nation that would go to any length to facilitate good relations with its neighbours – and expected the same in return. Right from the word go, Modi’s foreign policy had an underlined column – ‘neighbourhood first’.
At the UNGA meet in October, he said, “..my Government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with its neighbours.” And in this regard, the Kathmandu summit of the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member nations is a momentous occasion as it will mark the first opportunity when Modi will get an opportunity to lay down India’s vision for the South-Asian bloc.
It will also be the first test of India’s rising eminence in the neighbourhood since Modi took charge, and in a manner, pave way for it to becoming a key power in Asia.
One of Modi’s first masterstrokes was his invitation to all the heads of states of the SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony. The move showed his seriousness in projecting India as a peace-loving country that looked set to foster cordial relations with its neighbours, so that the newly-elected government could work towards internal matters rather than be bothered with constant skirmishes at its borders.
SAARC nations could have been the perfect ‘petri dish’ for Modi’s foreign policy that is based on pillars of economic growth and mutual co-operation with its neighbours. But this was somewhat marred by Pakistan’s antics at the Line of Control.
The Pakistani government has in past, feigned helplessness and blamed ‘non-government’ players that operate from its land for the trouble caused in Kashmir and at the border. But its decision to engage with separatists from the Valley did not go down well with India and the NDA government put its foot down by calling off secretary-level talks that were supposed to be held between the two countries in August.
A spurt of ceasefire violations by Pakistan across the Line of Control has shown it is no mood to talk peace. And although no talks are scheduled between Modi and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in Kathmandu, dialogue via back-room channels can definitely be expected at the Summit.
During his six months in office, Modi has himself visited Bhutan and inked a hydro-electric deal besides inaugurating the India-funded Supreme Court of Bhutan there. And on his visit to Nepal, he announced a credit assistance programme of US$1 billion among other things. He is also scheduled to visit Sri Lanka early next year. Meanwhile, External Affair Minister Sushma Swaraj has also visited Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives, and touched base with her counterparts there. So, other than Pakistan, Modi’s extended arm of mutual benefit through cooperation has begun to find resonance among all the other SAARC countries.
One of the first challenges faced by the Modi government was the terror attack on Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. Though the joint counter raised by Indian and Afghan commandos stationed there was enough to thwart the dastardly attack, it was a jolt to reality for the newly-elected NDA government. This has led to India committing itself towards taking measures to enhance the Afghan National Army’s capacities. The Modi government has also agreed to pay for the arms and ammunitions sourced by Afghanistan from Russia.
Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh have assured Modi that they would not let their land be used for any anti-India activity. When it came to Sri Lanka, the previous UPA governments had bowed down to ‘coalition dharma’ and refrained from engaging the island nation in dialogue. But Modi faces no such hindrances. In fact, Sri Lanka’s goodwill gesture to release Indian fishermen languishing in its jails, is seen as a major confidence-building measure between the two countries. During his proposed visit to Colombo, Modi is also likely to push for more rights for Tamils in Jaffna.
Modi’s affirmation to make the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) a strong regional block will help check China’s growing dominance in countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. And taking further the idea of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) economic union, Modi is pushing for the establishment of a ‘SAARC Bank’. The Prime Minister wants to be the go-to neighbour for the rest of SAARC nations when it comes to their need for infrastructure funds, while also saving them from high borrowing costs in the process.
Apart from being the proverbial provider of a bowl of sugar when there’s a shortage at a neighbour’s home, Modi has further extended a helping hand and invited SAARC countries to benefit from India’s space research and satellite technology. India’s geographical station cannot be seen in isolation from its neighbours who are affected equally by any adverse weather phenomena like cyclones, tsunami and earthquakes that it suffers. Modi’s stress on launching a SAARC satellite mission will go a long way in establishing a system that can reduce risks during disasters in the region and possibly also act as a forewarning mechanism in such cases.
Modi has always stressed on fostering better relations by joining dots of common heritage that bind most of the SAARC countries. Sharing common religious beliefs and taking pilgrimages in each other’s countries can go a long way in fostering region-wide co-operation, feels Modi. No wonder that on his first trip to Nepal during the Hindu calendar month of ‘Shravan’, Modi performed an elaborate ‘Rudrabhishek’ of Lord Pashupatinath in Kathmandu; and the itinerary of his second Nepal trip includes a stopover at Janakpur – the birthplace of Goddess Sita, and Lumbini – the birthplace of Lord Buddha. He is also keen to enhance the tourist facilities at important seats of Buddhism in India. His mantra ‘terrorism divides, tourism unites,’ seems apt to hem together a region bound by common cultural heritage. At the Kathmandu summit, PM Modi is likely to reiterate his vision about clearing bottlenecks hindering tourism in the region.
Modi has time and again stressed that the SAARC countries have much to learn from each others’ experiences and strengths. And provided India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy goes as planned during the Kathmandu summit, better relations among partner countries via enhanced sharing of ideas and resources will help make the SAARC a stronger bloc.