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Four years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a bold signal by inviting South Asian heads of state to his oath-taking ceremony. He was praised for pressing the reset button with his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Today, his critics say that India’s strategic outreach in the region is floundering.

ThePrint asks- Four years of Modi’s neighbourhood policy: Hit or dud?

There is a significant improvement in India’s bilateral relations with neighbours, except Pakistan

Vijay Chauthaiwale
In-Charge, Foreign Affairs Dept, Bharatiya Janata Party

There has been a definite improvement in India’s relations with neighbouring countries in the last four years, with Pakistan as an exception.

In Nepal, for example, the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Janakpur Dham and Kathmandu received tremendous response from the people and the government.

Whatever communication gap existed has now been addressed with back-to-back visits of Nepal PM K.P. Oli to Delhi and Modi to Kathmandu.

Modi was welcomed by all the political outfits in Nepal, and this shows that there is broader consensus among all the parties on maintaining good relations with India.

With Bangladesh, after resolving the boundary issues, there is a new beginning with PM Sheikh Hasina. Modi and Hasina are visiting Santiniketan in West Bengal today.

The Prime Minister reached out to ASEAN countries by hosting the heads of their governments/states at this year’s Republic Day. Cambodia’s prime minister also had a bilateral meeting with Modi in Delhi.

Modi last year visited Myanmar. The last time an Indian prime minister went to Myanmar for bilateral talks was decades ago. The same is true with Fiji.

Next week, he will be visiting Indonesia and then Singapore. This would be PM’s third visit to Singapore. Such outreach efforts show that there is a significant improvement in our bilateral ties with neighbours.

Pakistan is an exception and has itself to blame because it continues to support anti-India terrorist activities on its soil.

India and China are two most populous and fast-growing economies. Both are competing with each other on several issues while cooperating on some others. After the Doklam crisis, leaders of India and China came together for an informal summit, which shows a willingness to resolve differences in an amicable manner.

Modi govt’s neighbourhood policy has been catastrophic. India has never been isolated like this

Manish Tewari
Distinguished Senior Fellow, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, and spokesperson, Congress

The NDA government’s foreign policy has been a singularly unmitigated disaster. Within the broad parameters of this calamity, the neighbourhood policy has been particularly catastrophic. India has never been more isolated in its neighbourhood than it is today. The entire region is bending to the Chinese wind, and the Modi government is unable to do anything about it.

The economic blockade of Nepal was a very brash decision that had the effect of pushing the Nepalese into the embrace of the waiting Chinese. Sri Lanka is effectively becoming a Chinese vassal with not only the Hambantota Port but the entire Colombo water front being mortgaged to Chinese companies. In so far as Maldives is concerned, the Chinese are building military bases that would interdict the sea lanes of commerce from Hormuz to the Malacca. The Maldivian leadership even had the temerity to tell India that we should not interfere in the internal affairs of Maldives just as they do not in Kashmir.

In Bangladesh, it will need to be seen as to what the Chinese posture towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) would be in the ensuing general election. In so far as Pakistan is concerned, they have successfully been running circles around successive American administrations. The Pakistanis have now become China’s favourite Cat Law. The China-Pakistan economic corridor culminating at the Gwadar port situated on the mouth of the Hormuz is a direct challenge to India’s strategic interests in the northern Arabian Sea.

Even more worrying was the Russia-Pakistan military cooperation at the height of the alleged surgical strikes. Essentially, in the past four years, South Asia has ceased to be India’s eminent domain.

India’s neighbourhood policy has been mixed bag. China’s influence is beyond our control

Sushant Sareen
Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has been a mixed bag. Neither has it been a super duper hit, in terms of achieving all that it set out to, nor a complete failure. The ecosystem is different now, and India does not enjoy a political climate where it is the centre of gravity in the neighbourhood.

Some reasons for the success and failure of the policy are exogenous (the ones we can’t control) while some are endogenous (the ones we can).

First, the rise of China and its influence in the neighbourhood is not something we can control. Second, internal domestic changes in these countries are beyond our reach. These are the exogenous reasons that have inhibited India’s neighbourhood police.

Internally, Indian bureaucracy and the way it implements the promises Modi made in the neighbourhood countries is the reason for our inability to maintain a good relationship.

Let’s be clear, when I talk about our neighbourhood, I’m not talking addressing Pakistan. That is an entirely separate issue.

With India’s size and global influence, there have often been insecurities about our intentions in the area. This is a vicious cycle we must break out of. Our relationship with Bangladesh has angled towards the positive side. That’s precisely because both countries have a friendly attitude towards each other.

With Nepal, it has been a roller-coaster, but we should not ignore the fact that there are limits to Nepal’s cooperation with China. Sri Lanka is another mixed result. After the Hambantota fiasco, things seem to have looked up.

Maldives, however, is a complete failure. To my mind, the single biggest failure of every Indian government over the last 70 years is the way the neighbours react to India. They point a finger towards the country despite the fact that India may be providing them assistance. This is very unlike how they treat China, especially when Beijing has been a far more predatory neighbour.

Modi team’s track record would have been better if Bangladesh was prioritised

C. Uday Bhaskar
Director, Society for Policy Studies

It would be inappropriate to assess four years of the Narendra Modi government in relation to neighbourhood policies as a hit or a dud. I, however, recall using the phrase ‘Namo has hit a sixer even before getting to the crease’ with reference to the radical initiative of inviting the heads of governments in the neighbourhood for his swearing-in on 26 May 2014.

At the time it appeared that Modi would transform India’s deeply discordant ties with Pakistan and neglected ties with Bangladesh. However, the track record in May 2018 is patchy and uneven.

Pakistan remains the intractable neighbour – and this despite the surprise Lahore visit – but I think the reasons are more to do with the inflexible Rawalpindi hostility to India.

There is greater dissonance in the bilateral with Nepal, and with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the potential remains unrealised.

Maldives is a sore point, and personally I think Delhi could have done better in reading the domestic tea-leaves in Male.

Paradoxically, to my mind, the Doklam standoff and the manner in which the Modi team dealt with the crisis burnished India’s profile in the neighbourhood.

We do not have a full read on the outcome of Wuhan, but there is no denying the fact that China’s growing footprint in the Indian neighbourhood has made the regional grid more complicated for Delhi.

Bangladesh remains the most important neighbour for India, and if the Modi team had prioritised this bilateral, the track-record would have been more positive.

Delhi-Dhaka could have been the exemplar of Modi’s SAGAR vision. Alas, what is taking place now may be a case of too little-too late.

PM’s neighbourhood policy is cast in fog. Four years on, we are still waiting for clarity

Jyoti Malhotra
Editor, National & Strategic Affairs

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan PM, and other leaders from South Asia at his swearing-in ceremony four years ago was a marvellous initiative in neighbourhood diplomacy. So, it’s interesting that he has met Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina on the eve of his government’s fourth anniversary, this time in Santiniketan, West Bengal.

There are some moves, anew, to reopen some channels with Pakistan. In the last year before the general elections, the PM seems to be exploring the possibility of a historic peace accord, except that the stakes are far too high and Modi is hardly cast in the same mould as former NDA prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The opportunity is certainly there. Pakistan is hosting the SAARC summit later this year, and the question is: will the PM go to Islamabad?

A Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir is ongoing, despite both sides accusing each other of violations. If this holds, and if it can be continued till the end of the Amarnath yatra, a real moment will be at hand.

Modi has certainly sought to make amends in Nepal. Nepal’s prime minister K. P. Oli’s visit was significant, although Modi wasted an opportunity by largely converting his own visit to Nepal a couple of weeks ago into a pilgrimage.

Delhi’s reset with China is also impacting its policy with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Delhi has no clue on how to deal with Maldives’ Abdulla Yameen who rules his country with an iron hand, ignoring Delhi and leaning towards Beijing.

The PM’s neighbourhood policy is cast in fog. Four years on, we are still waiting for clarity.

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj and Sankalita Dey, journalists at ThePrint.

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