What do India’s neighbours expect from the new government?

A break down of India’s most important regional ties and how they will likely evolve under a new coalition government.

Published : Jun 07, 2024 19:37 IST - 5 MINS READ

Senior BJP leader Narendra Modi speaks during the NDA parliamentary party meeting at Samvidhan Sadan, in New Delhi, June 7, 2024.

Senior BJP leader Narendra Modi speaks during the NDA parliamentary party meeting at Samvidhan Sadan, in New Delhi, June 7, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

India’s general election has delivered a surprise setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which failed to win an outright majority and now needs the backing of its coalition partners to remain in power.

Over the past decade, Modi and the BJP have enjoyed authority and dominance over national politics. His third term as prime minister, however, will likely not be as smooth sailing as it was during the past decade, given the challenges of coalition politics. On foreign policy, though, the election outcome will not have much impact, experts have said.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, New Delhi has adopted “Neighborhood First” as a core component of India’s foreign policy, focusing on repairing and bolstering its ties with countries in the region.

Pakistan tensions remain

India’s most tense relationship is with its arch-rival and neighbour to the west, Pakistan. Many Pakistanis closely followed the Indian elections. “We are quite happy” to see Modi’s party lose its outright majority in parliament, Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani senator and expert in foreign affairs said. “It will be a more chastened and somewhat weakened Modi now sitting in the PM office in Delhi,” he said, adding that Pakistan hopes to see “a more subdued Indian approach to Pakistan in terms of tone and rhetoric.”

Modi’s government has refused to engage with Pakistan over the past few years since accusing Islamabad of cross-border terrorism. India and Pakistan have fought three wars and many skirmishes since both were carved out into two independent states in 1947, as British colonial rule of the subcontinent came to an end. Both claim the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir in full, but rule it in part. Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours have remained tense over the past few years.“ From Pakistan’s perspective, one question will be whether Modi, who engaged in anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the election campaign, doubles down on it or backs away from it,” said Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

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Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former representative to the United Nations said that it’s not a “favourable climate” for India-Pakistan re-engagement. “Pakistan expects little change, if any, from Modi’s third term in power. Prospects for any normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan are at best uncertain,” she said, adding that Islamabad “will adopt a wait-and-see policy.”

China looms in the background

As Islamabad strengthens its friendship with Beijing, which in turn is pumping billions of dollars of Chinese money into Pakistan to build key infrastructure such as roads and ports, India remains wary of China’s growing footprint and influence there. After the announcement of the election results, China congratulated Modi on his victory and called for “healthy and stable” bilateral relations.

Deep-seated mutual distrust has long characterised Sino-Indian relations, plagued by unresolved border disputes. Tensions remain high, with tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers massed on their disputed border since 2020, when a clash left 20 Indian troops and four Chinese soldiers dead.

Sana Hashmi, a China expert who previously worked as a consultant in India’s Foreign Ministry, said there won’t be any major improvement in India-China ties in the coming years. Without any Chinese concessions on the border issue, she said, New Delhi is unlikely to “turn mellow on its China policy”.

Sri Lanka invited to Modi’s swearing-in

The swearing-in ceremony for Modi’s third term is expected to take place on June 8. New Delhi has invited the leaders of some of India’s neighbours, including Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, to the event, according to local media reports. Both Hasina and Wickremesinghe have said they will be in attendance, a leading daily reported on June 6.

In recent years, Sri Lanka has become an arena of geopolitical rivalry and maritime competition between India and China. The country is strategically located at the crossroads of busy shipping routes. India and Sri Lanka share not only close trade relations, but also ethnic and religious ties.

But Chinese attempts to gain sway in Colombo over the past decade have caused concern in New Delhi. “Even while colonial legacies have historically bound India and Sri Lanka together, current events highlight complex dynamics,” said Anandhi Sasidharan, a former Sri Lankan minister, pointing to Sri Lanka’s acute economic crisis, debt problems, and the related geopolitical implications.

Under Wickremesinghe, however, relations between Sri Lanka and India appear to have strengthened over the past couple of years. The outcome of the Indian elections won’t have a major impact on ties with Sri Lanka, according to experts. “While Modi’s party may lack a clear majority, signalling potential constraints on policy implementation, India’s longstanding assistance to Sri Lanka remains steadfast,” said Shihar Aneez, a journalist based in Colombo.

Building on strength with Bangladesh

India’s relations with its eastern neighbour, Bangladesh, which have strengthened substantially over the past decade, will likely remain steady, said Bangladeshi officials and observers after the election results became clear. “Our deep friendly ties will continue,” Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Hasan Mahmud told journalists, adding that bilateral ties reached new heights under Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart, Hasina.

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The relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka is deeply entrenched and both share security and economic interests. “There won’t be any significant policy changes regarding Bangladesh,” said Touhid Hossain, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary.

Ali Riaz, an expert on Bangladesh and professor at Illinois State University, echoed this view. “Nothing will deter Modi to continue his foreign policy objectives as the Indian establishment will continue supporting his government,” he said. “There isn’t much disagreement between the BJP and opposition parties on projecting India as an emerging global power.”

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