South Asia or rather Southern Asia[i] has a population of around 1.9 billion which is one-fourth of the world’s total. Of the south Asian countries, India occupies a unique position. By virtue of its size, location, demography and economic potential it assumes a natural leadership in the region. However, because of its over-bearing presence and global aspirations for leadership there have been a lot of apprehensions in the neighbouring countries in the recent past who sometimes have blamed India of playing a ‘hegemonic’ role.
Nevertheless, India’s stature as a rising global power has enhanced its capability and capacity to play a bigger role not just in regional associations and forums like South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) but beyond it as well. In the regional context, because of its historical role as a problem solver New Delhi has been trying to re-orient towards its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy by increasing its interactions with the countries. Moreover, its northern adversary has been a source of security threat often using Pakistan as a tool for the same. India is, therefore, mindful of the growing Chinese influence in South Asia and hence perhaps it is imperative for India to keep engaging with its low key immediate neighbours which includes Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
India’s current policy towards its neighbours should be viewed within the backdrop of its evolution over the years. The neighbourhood policy evolved from Nehruvian ‘family approach’ to pragmatism and assertiveness during former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s era. Until this time, India’s policy towards its South Asian counterparts was bilateral in nature and no concrete regional policies were developed. It was only under Gujral doctrine that New Delhi started to develop regional policies vis-á-vis its near neighbours. Facing a diplomatic lull for sometime India’s attitude towards South Asia resurrected during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
Former Prime Minister Nehru viewed India’s neighbours through a broad spectrum and within a broader Asian framework. India’s strategic neighbours at that time included Iran, Russia and Central Asia as well. Around the same time during 1950-51 China became India’s new neighbor owing to its interest in Tibet and Xinjiang. Prior to this New Delhi dealt and interacted with Tibet and Xinjiang as independent entities. The ‘family approach’ propagated the idea of ‘part of one’ theory and helped Nehru to propagate micro-management in South Asia. Nevertheless, because of British legacy the focus during Nehruvian era was primarily on security aspects and not much on economic dimensions such as building developmental projects with the South Asian partners. Hence, the foreign policy was change driven due to Nehru’s call for Asian resurgence.
Nehru’s successors, former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi exhibited a great deal of pragmatism and assertiveness in their foreign policy and the ‘family approach’ was abandoned. While Indira Gandhi changed the contours of South Asia through inclusion of Sikkim under Indian protectorate and liberation and independence of Bangladesh; Rajiv Gandhi showed proactive roles in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Regional policies framed during former Prime Minister IK Gujral called for greater investment in the region without expecting reciprocity. It was felt that there is a huge imbalance in the power dynamics amongst South Asia and India being a larger and more developed country in all the aspects should shoulder larger responsibilities. This approach changed the mood in the neighbourhood and India was viewed as a more congenial country with which one could deal with.
The same pattern was followed by NDA-I, UPA-I and UPA-II. This significant shift in policy was primarily because India had become a more developed, stable and responsible country than it was during Nehru till Rajiv Gandhi’s time. Any significant development in the nearby countries is the result of India playing a decisive role. For example, Rana’s overthrow, coming of Sikkim, creation of Bangladesh, resolution of Maoist insurgency in Nepal, constitutional federalism in Sri Lanka, Maldives democratic transformation etc. Indeed, throughout these years India has played a transformational role in the neighbourhood.
Similarly, in the current times South Asia is revisited with BJP-led Modi government’s emphasis on ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. There are three main reasons for India to adopt this policy such as: the alienation feeling amongst the members of South Asia, China’s growing interest in the region and Prime Minister Modi’s personal aspirations to own the policy.
South Asia has the highest population with around 8.9 billion people growing at the average rate of 5.5 per cent. China wants to en-cash this opportunity and thus South Asia serves as a lucrative market. Though, China’s involvement earlier in the region was driven by the desire of the South Asian nations for the former to play a larger role in the region, the same is now driven by China’s own interest in the region.
Hence, India’s neighbourhood first policy comes at a very apt time. However, the result of the policy is half baked and little has been achieved out of it. The success stories as of now are India’s dealing and comfortability with Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan but on Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives not much has been achieved. The reasons for this are as follows: “unnecessarily heightened showcase of muscular diplomacy”, delivery deficit on India’s part, changing nature of the neighbourhood wherein India is seen as a polarizing factor and lastly, China’s push in the region through BRI and its activity in most of the South Asian nations are very visible.
There are four drivers that are responsible for Chinese push in South Asia, namely, Chinese sense of vulnerability in the Xinjiang province and in Tibet and as these two areas share borders with some of the South Asian actors China is naturally interested in striking a deal with the latter; Chinese economic capability is in distress and there is huge internal debt in the country and thus the huge market available in South Asia is highly lucrative to China; Malacca strait is of great importance to China as it will serve as a channel for trade route and lastly, China wants to build its clout in the region to check the US influence. These drivers are crucial to China and thus these pose major challenge for India to counter Chinese influence in the region. Therefore, the former needs to have engaged relations with its near neighbours and neighbourhood first policy thus is very crucial for India. India, however, is more informed of these fault lines now and is trying to make its neighbours aware of the Chinese debt trap. The countries are acknowledging India’s concern and are disassociating to some extent from the Chinese projects.
Thus, New Delhi’s policies towards its near neighbours have been transformational in nature often oscillating between brilliance-blunders and break through-break downs. To reduce the blunders the onus lies on the Indian policy makers and diplomats to ensure that policies do not go faulty on India’s part. Owing to Chinese interest and growing influence in the region India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy comes at an opportune moment and India should be fully dedicated towards garnering positive results out of it.