Bonhomie with neighbours paramount on PM’s agenda, even on America trip

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 29, 2014 01:04 IST

He may have been attending the most multi of multilateral summits, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken every opportunity to underline the importance he puts on his South Asia policy.

Three of his four bilateral meetings in New York were with neighbours, none were held with the permanent five members. In the general assembly, he peppered his speech with references to neighbouring countries, including Bhutan.

In his speech he laid down why, “India desires a peaceful and stable environment for its development. A nation’s destiny is linked to its neighbourhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her neighbours.”

In his bilateral meetings with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, he continued a pattern seen at his inauguration of public bonhomie and private hard talk. But Modi takes his neighbourhood policy seriously.

In private setting Modi speaks of the need to overcome the country’s past of shabby treatment of its smaller neighbours, including its neglect of Bhutan and blockading of Nepal. He is determined to finish what Manmohan Singh started when it comes to Bangladesh.

His insistence on a Tamil political settlement, however, means Sri Lanka may be his greatest challenge. But by calling for a ban on surface trawling during his bilateral with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Modi showed a practical side -- this would end the fishermen dispute under the guise of environmental protection.

Kanti Bajpai, of the Lew Kuan Yew School of Singapore and editor of the book India’s Grand Strategy, argues “Modi fits into a Hindutva school of foreign policy that takes the areas that fall into a greater cultural India more seriously.”

This would explain the striking absence of Myanmar in so many of his neighbourhood actions, it is the least Indic of the country’s that share an Indian border.

Emphasising on South Asia, however, also helps contain Pakistan to being just another Saarc nation in India’s worldview. “Including Pakistan in his discourse on all the neighbouring countries allows him diplomatic space against Pakistan and its continuing complaints about Kashmir and so on,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

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