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A Neighbour is Always Helpful and Needed More than a Faraway Brother: Modi’s Third Term and India’s Regional Focus

by Dr. Santhosh Mathew - 20 June, 2024, 12:00 184 Views 0 Comment

“A nearby neighbour is better than a distant relative.” This age-old adage encapsulates India’s renewed focus on strengthening relationships with its immediate neighbours as Narendra Modi embarks on his third term as Prime Minister. This commitment was evident during the inauguration ceremony, where key leaders from these regions, including Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, were present. Their participation underscores New Delhi’s strategic priorities and its “Neighbourhood First” policy and the vision for Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

The presence of leaders from Bhutan, Nepal, Mauritius, Seychelles, and the Maldives at the swearing-in ceremony signifies India’s dedication to maintaining and enhancing regional solidarity. Bhutan was represented by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, while Nepal’s delegation was led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Mauritius was represented by President Prithvirajsing Roopun, Seychelles by Vice-President Ahmed Afif, and the Maldives by President Mohamed Muizzu. The inclusion of President Muizzu was particularly notable given the recent strain in India-Maldives relations. His attendance signals a potential thawing of ties and a willingness to engage in dialogue despite past tensions. Following the inauguration, Prime Minister Modi met with the visiting leaders at Rashtrapati Bhavan. During these meetings, he reaffirmed India’s dedication to regional cooperation, emphasizing that India will continue to work towards “peace, progress, and prosperity” in partnership with neighbouring countries. This aligns with India’s broader goal of achieving a “Viksit Bharat” (Developed India) by 2047. India’s outreach to its neighbours during Modi’s inauguration has evolved over the years. In 2014, the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were invited to Modi’s first swearing-in. This was followed by an invitation to leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Mauritius, and Kyrgyzstan in 2019. The consistent inclusion of regional leaders reflects India’s strategic intent to strengthen regional solidarity and cooperation. India’s emphasis on the Indian Ocean region is a critical aspect of its foreign policy. The SAGAR vision aims to ensure security and economic growth in the region, promoting stability and cooperation among Indian Ocean countries. The presence of leaders from island nations like Mauritius, Seychelles, and the Maldives at the inauguration underscores this strategic focus.

Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, India and Bangladesh share a robust trade relationship valued at $12,906 million in the 2023-24 financial year. India exports machinery and textiles, while Bangladesh exports garments and fish. The two nations have deep historical ties, with India playing a crucial role in Bangladesh’s liberation. Ongoing projects include improving connectivity and a comprehensive water-sharing agreement. Bangladesh, specifically Hasina’s dispensation, has been crucial for India’s national security by clamping down on militants and separatist groups who used to seek shelter there. Bilateral trade between India and Sri Lanka amounted to $5,542 million in 2023-24, with significant Indian exports of petroleum and automobiles. India and Sri Lanka share ancient ties, reinforced by cultural and religious connections, especially among the Tamil populations. Future discussions are expected to enhance maritime security cooperation and economic collaboration. India and Nepal share an open-border relationship, reflecting their deep historical and cultural ties. In 2023-24, bilateral trade amounted to $7,871 million, dominated by Indian exports of petroleum products and machinery. The countries also share deep cultural and religious ties, with a thriving tourism industry, especially religious tourism. Energy and water-sharing disputes have in the past been a sticking point, but ongoing dialogue aims to resolve these issues.

India and the Maldives have maintained close ties over the years. Most notably, India helped prevent a coup in the Maldives in 1988. In 2023-24, trade between the two nations reached $979 million, primarily involving marine products and construction materials. Many Maldivian students come to India for further studies. Future discussions will likely focus on climate change and sustainable development. India and Seychelles share a strategic relationship, particularly in maritime security and environmental cooperation. Located north of Madagascar, Seychelles is among the most strategically important archipelagos in the Indian Ocean. Trade between the two countries was valued at $85 million in 2023-24, with a focus on fisheries and tourism. Future dialogues will aim to bolster environmental protection agreements, crucial for addressing climate change. India and Bhutan are “all-weather friends” with significant economic and cultural exchanges. In 2023-24, bilateral trade was $1.3 billion, with India being a major partner in Bhutan’s hydroelectric power sector. Cultural ties are reinforced through educational exchanges and collaborative efforts to preserve Bhutanese heritage. Future discussions will likely focus on expanding economic cooperation through new trade agreements.

Notably, all these seven countries have seen growing ties with China, India’s closest geopolitical rival, as Modi’s message emphasized India’s commitment to regional peace, progress, and prosperity through the “Neighbourhood First” policy and the SAGAR vision, excluding Pakistan.

Dr. Santhosh Mathew
Author is an Associate Professor, Centre For South Asian Studies, School of International Studies & Social Sciences, Pondicherry Central University, India.
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