With Modi leading a coalition government, what lies ahead for India’s tense neighbourhood?

Prime Minister Modi now confronts regional tensions, China’s assertiveness, and the need for a stable South Asian framework.

Published : Jun 09, 2024 15:16 IST - 7 MINS READ

Bhutan was the first country Modi visited after becoming Prime Minister in 2014. Here, Modi greets Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in Thimphu in June 2014.

Bhutan was the first country Modi visited after becoming Prime Minister in 2014. Here, Modi greets Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in Thimphu in June 2014. | Photo Credit: AFP

On May 14, a day after the 2004 Lok Sabha election result, Afghanistan’s then President, Hamid Karzai, called me to his office in the Arg Palace, in Kabul. As I entered the chamber he asked: “Ambassador, what happened?” Karzai, a student of political science, including a postgraduate degree in Shimla, has an interest in Indian politics. He had followed the election on his satellite television and, as one of his aides told me later, was riveted as the results came in. He was perplexed, as were almost all observers, at the defeat of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with whom he had a good understanding.

As the conversation went on, I did what any ambassador would have done: assured him that the incoming government would continue and build upon the NDA government’s positive approaches towards Afghanistan. Indian interests—and indeed those of Afghanistan—demanded close and comprehensive ties between the two countries.

This understanding was never lost in both capitals, barring some aberrant periods, such as when Mullah Omar’s Taliban was in power in 1996-2001. Indeed, even today the Taliban in Kabul are eager to improve bilateral relations with India. The inhibitions lie in New Delhi. Perhaps not as intensely as Karzai, but foreign ministries, intelligence agencies, and sections of the political class in neighbouring countries would have carefully followed the 2024 election. While the BJP did not win an outright majority, the leaders of some neighbouring countries congratulated Narendra Modi, obviously expecting him to become Prime Minister again. It would be interesting to know if any leader discussed the election with an Indian envoy, especially because Modi will be heading a real coalition for the first time. It would not be unnatural for them to wonder how he will fare.

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For the time being though, the government will have to handle Pakistan and Afghanistan in the west, Sri Lanka and Maldives in the south, Bangladesh and Myanmar in the east, and Nepal and Bhutan in the Himalaya. And across the range, the world’s aggressively rising power, China. While China is India’s neighbour and its greatest strategic challenge, in popular and even strategic imagination, the term “neighbourhood” generally refers to the other eight countries; China is in a separate category. Seven of the eight—Myanmar is the exception—are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has been moribund since 2016. Its invigoration would need a substantial move towards the normalisation of India-Pakistan ties.

China’s determination to continue to put India under pressure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will not abate. Its LAC deployments and frenetic infrastructure construction in Tibet pose a threat that require infrastructure development and the massing of Indian troops in Ladakh and other border areas. With its economy six times India’s, China is better placed to expend resources. India has to accept that the India-China arrangements of the 1990s to maintain peace and tranquillity along the LAC are over, and Modi’s reliance on personal chemistry has proved illusory. The only course open for India is to beef up its defences along the LAC.

Apart from the threat at the border, China also constitutes the principal challenge in the neighbourhood. Its ingress is relentless. For most of India’s neighbours, the major continuing foreign policy dilemma lies in navigating ties between India and China. A Modi-led coalition will have to continue to press Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka to ensure that their growing ties with China do not impinge on India’s security. India has a range of coercive options to back these requests but can hardly become an obstacle to their growing ties with China. It does offer the allure of its own economy, but it cannot make that an either/or option.

Thus, while it has itself shunned China’s Belt and Road Initiative, these neighbours have embraced it. While dealing with Modi now, these (and all) neighbours will have to remain aware that a closer embrace of China may be counterproductive in the long run because the facts of geography cannot be wished away. How will Modi now deal with a poke-India-in-the-eye Maldives under President Mohamed Muizzu? Muizzu has flaunted his desire for close ties with China. India has shown exemplary patience in dealing with him, including replacing its defence personnel servicing and operating the platforms given by it to Maldives for ocean surveillance and humanitarian assistance by civilians. However, India may not be able to continue with this approach if Muizzu’s approaches adversely impact its security.

Bhutan was the first country Modi visited after becoming Prime Minister in 2014. After the 2019 election, Modi went on a state visit to Bhutan that August. India-Bhutan ties maintain their traditional mutually beneficial nature with significant cooperation, especially in the energy and the security sectors. However, the Bhutanese polity is evolving with greater popular participation in decision-making though the position of the monarchy remains pivotal. Consequently, Bhutan will want to establish ties with China in the coming years, perhaps despite the border dispute. India and Bhutan will have to sagaciously move forward, irrespective of the nature of government in India.

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India-Pakistan ties have remained frozen after the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Under Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan spewed venom against the move, asking India to reverse its decisions on Jammu and Kashmir as a pre-requisite for restoring full diplomatic ties. At the same time, the two countries agreed on a ceasefire along the international border in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Line of Control in February 2021, which largely continues to hold. With Khan’s departure and Shehbaz Sharif becoming Prime Minister in April 2022, the vituperation against the Sangh Parivar has toned down but not, at least formally, the demand that India reverse the 2019 changes.

Sino-Pak nexus

Addressing his party’s General Council, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—Shehbaz Sharif’s elder brother—indirectly admitted that Pakistan was to blame for the Kargil conflict. “We broke our pledge; we are guilty,” he said. Earlier, he had called for normalisation of ties with neighbours. Nawaz has always been in favour of trade and people-to-people contacts with India even if he remains strongly committed to Kashmir. The question now is if he will be able to persuade the generals that this is necessary for Pakistan’s economic recovery. And, if so, how far Modi will be willing to go; his allies may leave the matter to him. Will he be willing to take the risks he took in 2014-16, only to be embarrassed by the Pakistan Army? That is more important than restoring statehood to Jammu and Kashmir, which Modi’s alliance partners may encourage him to do. Meanwhile, the Sino-Pak nexus will only get stronger.

Myanmar is in turmoil. The generals are under pressure from ethnic groups’ militias but are in no hurry to restore democracy. The army’s connection with China is enduring. Modi will have to deal with the generals and continue the process of engagement while making the right noises about democracy. With the unrest in Manipur, India has to tread warily.

Since Independence, India has struggled to evolve a stable template to deal with its neighbourhood. In turn, the neighbourhood has not been able to find an enduring equation to deal with India. It has looked to outside powers for support. There have been historical obstacles in devising an effective organisation to address common problems, increasingly exacerbated by climate change. There is increasing logic to intraregional cooperation through SAARC, but this has been thwarted principally by Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism. Consequently, India has sought to knit its eastern neighbourhood through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and has looked further east to the Indo-Pacific, but the need for a robust South Asian organisation is undeniable. The question is, with a Modi-led government, will the neighbourhood and India be able to establish, inter alia, intraregional connectivity, trade, and counter climate change mechanisms? The answer is shrouded in imponderables.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer. He served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan from March 2002 to January 2005.

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