The invitation to the leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, 2014 was considered landmark in many ways. For one, it had never happened before. A sober domestic ceremony had suddenly become a high-profile event with the attendance of several foreign leaders. Second, it indicated that the incoming government that had promised a ‘muscular’ foreign policy underlining India’s aspirations, was eager to get a head-start on cementing the country’s relations with its neighbours. All heads of states, excluding Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina as she was on a pre-planned trip to Japan, duly attended the function. The decision also won the prime minister a lot of domestic praise from opposition quarters for thinking inventively.
Three years on, much water has flowed under the bridge. The government, that completes three years in office on Friday, has a checkered report card with several achievements as well as significant setbacks. Here’s a look at the pluses and minuses vis-a-vis India’s relations with its neighbours.
Afghanistan underwent a change in its political leadership when Ashraf Ghani was elected president in September 2014. Ghani’s first state visit to India came in April 2015 during which he held extensive consultations with the Indian leadership including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and PM Modi. Post discussions, India offered Afghanistan three Cheetal helicopters in its fight against the Taliban. India also promised a $5 million fund for the treatment of Afghan children with congenital heart disease in India, extension of the ICCR scholarship till 2020. Both countries also showed readiness to allow vehicles from both sides to traverse each other’s regions.
PM Modi’s first visit to Afghanistan came in December, 2015 during which he, along with President Ghani, jointly inaugurated the National Assembly building that was constructed under India-Afghanistan Development Cooperation. A block in the complex was named after former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Modi also addressed the Afghan Parliament and held talks with former president Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan CEO A. Abdullah.
Both sides have also decided to improve connectivity through Iran’s Chabahar port on priority. India’s assistance fund for development projects in Afghanistan stands at $2 billion, the biggest donor among regional countries.
In June, 2016, PM Modi made yet another trip to Afghanistan during which he jointly inaugurated with President Ghani the $290 million Salma Dam in Herat. The water from the dam will help irrigate the parched region and assist the country in taking advantage of the opportunities once the Chabahar port is completed. However, over the last three years security concerns still exist with Afghanistan and its capital city Kabul playing witness to frequent terror attacks and suicide bombings. There has also been criticism of India’s supposed reluctance in making a paradigm shift in Afghanistan’s political process and policy mechanisms.
India-Bangladesh relations since 2014 has seen frequent high-level visits by leaders from both sides. The two-way trade between the two countries in 2012-13 stood at $5.34 billion.
One of the biggest achievements of the Modi government is the ratification of the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in 2014 in Parliament in the presence of Bangladeshi diplomats. It helped in the re-organisation of the international border and the exchange of enclaves between the countries.
In June, 2015, PM Modi undertook his debut trip to Dhaka and announced a credit line of $2 billion to the neighbouring country. Both leaders exchanged documents related to the LBA and signed agreements with a bid to cut down on illegal immigration and fake currency. Two agreements for trans-border bus services on the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala routes were also signed.
In April earlier this year, Sheikh Hasina visited India on an official state trip and held extensive consultations with PM Modi and FM Sushma Swaraj. India announced a new credit line of $4.5 billion with an additional $500 million for Bangladesh’s defence. The credit line came after China’s overtures to Bangladesh in pursuit of dominance in the region. Over two dozen agreements were also signed in sectors of trade, transport, energy and counter-terrorism.
The long-standing deal on the sharing of waters of Teesta river is yet to be signed between the two countries. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has expressed reservations on the deal with regard to farmers in north Bengal losing a significant share of the river water.
Bhutan was the first foreign destination that PM Modi chose after he was sworn-in. Not only is the tiny Himalayan kingdom one of India’s closest partners, it has also been one neighbour has so far not given India any headache.
Bhutan is one of the biggest beneficiaries of India’s foreign aid – it received $985 million in 2015-16. During PM Modi’s visit in June, 2014, both countries reignited the resolve to get hydropower generation up to 10,000 MW. PM Modi inaugurated the building of the Supreme Court, constructed with Indian assistance, and laid the foundation for the 600MW Kholongchu Hydro-electric project. Scholarships to Bhutanese students were doubled and Indian assistance will be offered for the creation of digital libraries for students. He also addressed a joint session of Parliament of Bhutan.
In January, 2015, Bhutan PM Tshering Tobgay paid an official visit to India and held talks with the Indian leadership. During talks with PM Modi, Tobgay spoke of the status of the three hydropower projects that are under construction.
He also participated in the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Ahmedabad where he spoke about Bhutan’s model of ‘Gross National Happiness.’ He said Bhutan was open for business, but only for green and sustainable projects.
Maldives is one country that PM Modi has not visited since taking office. Although it was in the itinerary for his Indian Ocean tour, it was later dropped purportedly over the country’s domestic tensions. Maldives has been roiled by the arrest of its former president Mohammad Nasheed, his conviction in a sedition case and his sentencing to 13 years in jail in 2015.
India’s relations with Maldives off late has been impacted by China’s footprint on the island and in the larger Indian Ocean region. India is cautious of China’s diplomacy in the region and is not at ease with the Asian giant’s relationship with Maldives.
Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom visited India in April last year and held talks with PM Modi and EAM Swaraj. The two countries also exchanged agreements in the fields of defence, taxation, tourism, conservation of mosques and space research. “India understands its role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and is ready to protect its strategic interests in this region,” Modi said.
The security cooperation of both countries will rest on the development of ports, capacity building and maritime surveillance.
EAM Swaraj had visited Maldives in 2014 and 2015 and was a part of the India-Maldives Joint Commission meeting.
Even though the India-Nepal relations began on a strong note after the incumbent government was sworn-in, it quickly descended into a crisis, the magnitude of which both countries had never seen. When Nepal promulgated its new constitution in 2015, the Madhesi groups, people of Indian origin, complained that their interests were not considered and started to agitate by creating blockades at border points. Nepal in turn even pointed fingers at India and accused it of supporting the blockade and not allowing the passage of basic items through the border. The issue was finally resolved with the Nepalese government promising to meet the demands of the Madhesi front.
In PM Modi’s first visit to Nepal in November, 2014, some of the agreements that were signed were an MoU on National Police Academy at Panauti, line of credit of $1 billion for hydropower and infrastructure projects, MoU for cooperation in traditional systems of medicine, MoU for cooperation in the field of tourism, proposals to link Janakpur-Ayodhya, Kathmandu-Varanasi and Lumbini-Bodh Gaya as sister cities and the supply of a Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter Mark-III to the Nepal army. A bus service between Delhi and Kathmandu was also flagged off.
In 2015, after the devastating earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and rendered thousands homeless, India carried out extensive rescue operations and extended a $750 million credit line for post-earthquake reconstruction projects.
In the last three years, Nepal has also seen multiple prime ministers in KPS Oli, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Sher Bahadur Deuba, who took over just this week. Prachanda also visited India in 2016 as part of which he attempted to reset the ties with India after the Madhesi crisis.
Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to New Delhi to attend PM Modi’s swearing-in and the latter’s surprise visit to Lahore in December, 2015 are probably the only saving graces of a relationship that is in complete tatters. The contours of the relationship changed dramatically with the terrorist attack on the Indian Army base in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir in September, 2016. The terrorists are believed to have infiltrated from Pakistan. Then came the ‘surgical strikes’ by the Indian Army destroying terror launchpads across the Line of Control. The ties between the two countries never improved since then. The latest incident to roil the relationship was the mutilation of bodies of two Indian soldiers by a Pakistan border action team in the Krishna Ghati sector of J&K. Cross-border fatalities and repeated violation of the ceasefire by Pakistan have also contributed to the failure of talks between the two sides.
Since 2014, there have been no official visits by both heads of state. Modi and Sharif attended the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, but held no official bilateral talks on the sidelines. However, reports indicated that they had a secret meeting facilitated by businessman Sajjan Jindal. They also had a ‘pull-aside’ meeting on the sidelines of the climate change conference in Paris in December, 2015.
While EAM Sushma Swaraj has visited Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has made a trip to the Pakistani capital for the SAARC meeting. The latter’s visit did not produce any positive results. The dialogue of the peace process remains suspended as of now.
While Sri Lanka has been one of India’s biggest trading partners in south Asia, the latter is Lanka’s biggest partner globally. The two countries share deep historical and cultural ties.
The importance of ties with India was reflected when newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena chose India for his first state visit. He also came for a second state visit within 17 months and attended the BIMSTEC summit in Goa as well. PM Modi has also made trips to the island nation twice, first in 2015 as part of his Indian Ocean tour and second earlier this year when he participated in the ‘Vesak Day’ celebrations there.
When he visited Sri Lanka in 2015, PM Modi was the first Indian PM to do a stand-alone visit in 28 years. The last was Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. During that visit, he addressed the Lankan parliament and made a trip to the northern province of Jaffna, the second foreign leader after David Cameron to do so. He also handed over homes built with Indian assistance to the locals there. During his trip earlier this year, PM Modi inaugurated a hospital built with Indian assistance and visited the Indian-origin Tamil community there. He announced a direct flight between Varanasi and Colombo as well.
As for President Sirisena, he had made it clear that relations with India are a priority, a marked departure from his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa who moved closer to China. During Rajapaksa’s term, several agreements worth billions of dollars were signed with China making India cautious.
During Sirisena’s visit to India, several matters including energy, civil nuclear cooperation, fisheries and energy were discussed. He also made trips to Bodhgaya and Tirupati.