Delhi has begun a long-overdue outreach to two important neighbours, Nepal and Bangladesh, with whom relations have been uneven in recent months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepal counterpart Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli spoke with each other in a prelude to Monday’s meeting between officials of both sides to discuss the territorial spat over the Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura-Kalapani trijunction. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s two-day visit to Dhaka came at a time when the Sheikh Hasina government is in talks with Beijing for a $1bn loan for a project on the river Teesta. India has tended to take for granted neighbours with whom it has had traditionally good relations, so much so that even seasoned foreign policy hands in the Ministry of External Affairs appear to have failed to anticipate that Nepal’s concerns about India’s new map last year would escalate, or that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, would provoke problems with Bangladesh. Down the years, the politics of the states on the borders has played an oversized role in setting, and skewing, India’s foreign policy towards neighbours. Of late, though, the ideology and politics of the ruling party at the Centre has been a dominant force.
The ruling party at the Centre has sometimes sought to cast foreign policy in the region as an extension of the domestic ideological project, as for instance, in the case of the CAA in Assam and West Bengal, neighbours of Bangladesh on either side. Or in the way Nepal is perceived, by virtue of its Hindu majority, almost as a feudatory state. Bangladesh, on the other hand, must be watched with suspicion for who it might be pushing in over the border. In the strategic community, too, there has been an impatience with the South Asian neighbours for not seeing it India’s way. But the neighbours, which have their own vibrant democratic polities, have sized up India’s economic vulnerabilities and security pre-occupations, and are confidently leveraging the regional big power imbalance to serve their own interests.
Repairing these ties requires the recognition that each nation is an equal, irrespective of size, and has its own agency. Inversely, as the biggest country in the region, India must show a large-heartedness and generosity that has been missing for too long, replaced by a blunt transactionalism, in which each country is only a prize in an India vs China match. The engagement has to be constant and continuous, not episodic or in reaction to a Chinese loan here or with an eye on an election in a particular state. India and Nepal have had the most progressive relations in South Asia, with open borders and a free intermingling of people, almost European in vision and scope. India helped in the creation of Bangladesh. Delhi continues to have strong political and diplomatic relations with these countries. It must mine its own strengths, the deep people to people connections, and the shared histories of the region, to reset ties, not just with Kathmandu and Dhaka but across the region.