A distinctive feature about Narendra Modi’s reign in power so far has been his government’s focus on the South Asian neighbourhood. The prime minister heads for a landmark visit to Nepal on Sunday after choosing Bhutan as his first port of call. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has been to both Dhaka and Kathmandu.
Mr Modi’s endeavour stems in part from a need to undo the disarray in neighbourhood policy seen during the UPA’s later years. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made progress with Pakistan when he had the space to but his declining authority in UPA 2 made progress elsewhere difficult. But it’s worth noting that Mr Singh did not have a congenial climate to work with. Domestic politicians like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee tended to interfere in foreign policy, as she did when stalling the Teesta water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. UPA 2 also coincided with considerable flux in the region. Pakistan under Asif Ali Zardari’s regime was in perpetual domestic ferment, which was followed by a long election process. Nepal battled an extended constitutional crisis while Bangladesh saw months of unrest.
Mr Modi clearly senses an opportunity in the relatively settled climate he encounters. Nepal has a stable government, Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina is back in power while Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif has a strong mandate even if he has the Pakistan Army and raging insurgencies to contend with.
Improved circumstances alone do not account for change of policy though. There is now certainly a measure of executive direction towards the neighbourhood that was missing in recent years. The NDA government believes that improved South Asian connectivity can drive stability and growth. The neighbours are crucial for the Indian economy. Nepal can be a key resource for hydropower, which India desperately needs. Transit rights through Bangladesh can transform connections to the North-East and beyond to Myanmar and China. More land-based trade with Pakistan will benefit cash-strapped Indian Punjab. A neighbourhood that embraces India is also a strategic counter to China, which is keen on developing strong ties with South Asia. Mr Modi has importantly signalled — both to neighbours and his own bureaucracy — that he will pay attention to this dossier during his tenure.
- Success will not be easy as stakeholders will resist change when they can. Progress will depend on Mr Modi’s ability to decide on thorny political questions quickly, his reining in of the bureaucracy’s conservative instincts and delivering India’s commitments on time — particularly on infrastructure projects that the neighbours are keen on. Symbolism and persistence need to go together.