India’s premier think-tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi held the 12th South Asia Conference on “India’s Neighbourhood First Policy: Regional Perceptions”. The conference brought together policy makers, academics and experts from the South Asian region and Myanmar to debate on what India’s neighbourhood first policy means to these countries. Around 25 papers were presented in the two days conference. Apart from foreign participants, 9 Indian participants shared their views on India’s neighbourhood first policy. In his inaugural address, the Defence Minister Mr. Raj Nath Singh who is also the President of IDSA emphasised that time has come for the region to rise above their individual national identity and think as South Asians, as a way forward. Mr. V. Muraleedharan, Minister of State for External Affairs emphasised on the various aspects of India’s neighbourhood policy.
In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took oath of office, his thrust was on India’s immediate neighbours. He had invited the leaders of the SAARC countries to his swearing in ceremony and undertook his first foreign visit to Bhutan followed by other neighbouring countries. What made this policy different from the previous government’s policy was the Prime Minister’s visit to the neighbourhood demonstrating that they matter most to India. The thrust in 2014 was “sab ka saath sabka vikas” which in the second term of the NDA government has become “sab ka sath sab ka vikas and sab ka vishwas”.
It was emphasised that India’s bilateral relations is not based on reciprocity but that of sharing prosperity, providing unilateral concession while bridging existing trust deficit. Due to power disparity between India and her neighbours, sometimes India’s neighbours have courted external powers. Therefore, the responsibility of building good neighbourly relationship should become mutual. There was an emphasis on cooperation on the issue of connectivity, harnessing water resources, energy connectivity through grid interconnection that would facilitate economic integration within the region. Inter-regional trade has remained as low as 6 percent and its potential is yet to be harnessed due to various trade barriers, excessive paper works and poor connectivity. However, that is improving with several connectivity projects that are being implemented under various lines of credit extended by India. In recent years power trade has been a reality.
India exports around 1200 MW of electricity to Bangladesh and with grid connectivity this trade is likely to increase. Similarly, Bangladesh has proposed to invest US$ 1 billion in hydel projecs in Bhutan. New Delhi has also demonstrated an interest to invest in Nepal. India’s cross border power trade regulation of March 2019, is likely to facilitate this trade in the future as grid connectivity becomes a reality. Apart from investment in infrastructures, reconstruction activities in war and disaster affected areas of the region; India is also engaged in capacity building of bureaucrats and armed forces of her neighbours. India engages in multilateral and bilateral joint exercises with the armed forces of the region.
India’s neighbours are also keen to engage India in various sectors. Nepal and Bhutan, the two land-locked countries, are eager to access seaports in Bangladesh for their trade expansion. They are also keen to diversify their energy market. Kathmandu and Thimphu realise that partnership with India will benefit them. Maldives and Bhutan also emphasised their ‘India first’ policy. Bangladesh emphasised on trust and inclusiveness being fundamental to bilateral relations where interdependence is the key.
India can play a reconciliatory role in the region. The countries of the region continue to perceive terrorism as a major challenge. Though bilateral relations remain extremely important for the countries of the region various regional groups remains equally significant. The roles of SAARC*, BIMSTEC*, Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor etc. have the potential to transform the South-Asian region in terms of regional economic integration. The way forward would be to work for peace and prosperity by burying differences.
Script: Dr.Smruti S Pattanaik, Strategic Analyst on South Asia