The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Has Modi Given Up on South Asian Cooperation?

Is India’s “neighborhood first” vision foundering?

Mohamed Zeeshan
Has Modi Given Up on South Asian Cooperation?
Credit: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has a problem. Its political interests at home, which often compel muscular rhetoric and chest-thumping, are increasingly at odds with India’s foreign policy interests in South Asia.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014, he made South Asian ties a priority with his “neighborhood first” declaration. He made history by inviting South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, initiated a South Asia Satellite project, and launched a landmark bus service running from Kolkata to Dhaka to Agartala in India’s northeast. He even made remarkable overtures to Pakistan, including a surprise pit stop in Lahore tovisit the then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

Modi’s proactive outreach was driven by the reasonable understanding that India’s great power aspirations depend on how well it gets along with its neighbors. Yet, almost six years later, that early momentum has largely fallen away. The outreach to Pakistan was always fragile, and, sure enough, after a series of terror attacks, all bonhomie was quickly wiped away. But elsewhere, New Delhi has had a hard time reconciling the BJP’s domestic rhetoric and interests with the needs of diplomacy in South Asia.

It began in 2015, when the Indian army conducted covert operations across the border in Myanmar against insurgents from the northeast Indian state of Nagaland. Following the operations, the then-Information Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore came out to publicly celebrate the prime minister’s courage. Stung by the chest-thumping in New Delhi, the Myanmar government spoke out, calling on India to “respect the other country’s sovereignty.”

That same year, India got into another diplomatic wrangle, this time with its close ally Nepal. In the run-up to elections in the state of Bihar, India chose to take up the rights of the Madhesi people in Nepal’s constitution. The domestic compulsion was that the Madhesis shared close cultural ties with the Bihari people. Once again, New Delhi chose to play bold with a stinging blockade on fuel supplies to the Nepalis. It did not end well: Nepal decided to cultivate closer ties with China instead, to reduce its dependence on Indian imports.

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The trade-off between muscularity at home and bonhomie in the neighborhood has long been real, but it now seems to have come to a head with the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA – which fast-tracks citizenship for religious minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh – is seen as an express message from New Delhi that its Muslim-majority neighbors are failed states, all collectively involved in the genocide of their non-Muslim population.

In Bangladesh and Afghanistan, that is a message with very real political consequences. Ever since India helped them win independence in 1971, Bangladeshi leaders have sought to differentiate their own nationalism from the religious nationalism of Pakistan. After a spate of attacks on rationalist bloggers – some of whom bore Muslim names – Bangladesh has tried to revive a stronger culture of secularism. In Afghanistan, similarly, leaders have been seeking to build a more inclusive brand of nationalism in a complex and violent environment.

In both countries, India has been seen as an ally in the fight against religious extremism. In Afghanistan, in particular, India has enjoyed support across the governments of both Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, based on the idea that the two countries are common sufferers of terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

But owing to the ideological promises of Hindu nationalism, New Delhi has now hyphenated both Bangladesh and Afghanistan with Pakistan. The narrative surrounding the CAA has naturally caused troubles for Indian allies in these countries, as they have scrambled to recover national pride and secular rhetoric in their domestic politics. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that she “[doesn’t] understand why [India] did it.” In Afghanistan, former President Karzai was much more pointed: “We don’t have persecuted minorities in Afghanistan,” Karzai told The Hindu. “The whole country is persecuted.”

Chest-thumping and Hindu nationalist rhetoric have worked well so far for Modi and the BJP at home. The challenge, however, is in mitigating insults and injuries to political allies in neighboring states. India already has the odds stacked against it: As the largest country in South Asia by some distance, its smaller neighbors are perennially anxious about the need to counter-balance India with China (indeed, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka have all already taken steps toward that). And the muscular rhetoric of BJP leaders has often made matters more difficult for those who champion Indian leadership in these countries.

It is a tradeoff that Modi must consider more seriously. His “neighborhood first” vision and India’s larger aspirations for global leadership depend on South Asian camaraderie.