India's PM Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Ismail

Because of then-president Abdulla Yameen’s pro-China policies as well as his crackdown on the opposition on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s planned March 2015 state visit to Maldives, not only did that visit have to be canceled at the very last minute but Modi could not visit Maldives until the very end of his first term in office.

Later that year, a major disruption of India’s supplies to Nepal saw China stepping in to supply 1.3 million liters of gasoline by sending a hundred tankers to Kathmandu via its Tibet border. The year 2016 saw terror attacks at Pathankot and Uri in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state derailing India’s relations with Pakistan and making the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) dysfunctional. The year 2017 saw India hitting the headlines over the 10-week-long Doklam crisis, igniting anger and disaffection in both China and Bhutan, and 2018 ended with the Pulwama suicide attack in J&K followed by India’s air strikes on Pakistan. 

No doubt Modi’s hyperactive foreign policy in his first term had its moments of celebration, yet India’s immediate neighborhood continued to be its nemesis, dwarfing India’s efforts and seeing Modi’s Neighborhood First policy ceding space to China’s ever-expanding influence.

But each of these episodes also became watersheds in redefining Modi’s Neighborhood First policy, making it ever more pragmatic and far more assertive and nuanced. First, this saw Modi taking that policy out of its limited bandwidth of competing with China’s five-times-bigger economic prowess and investment spree through its Belt and Road Initiative. The last two years saw Modi instead front-loading India’s unique and enduring religious-cultural, ethnic, and linguistic people-to-people linkages with neighboring nations. 

Last year saw Modi visiting Nepal twice back to back, having roadshows with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and praying at the temples of Janakpur, Pashupatinath and Muktinath, the last one close to the Chinese border. In Sri Lanka, Modi was the chief guest as that country hosted the 2018 International Vesak Day – the day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and nirvana. This saw Modi heralding his vision for 21st-century-resonating Buddhist axioms, citing Buddhist canons in chaste Pali and Sanskrit, praying and taking blessings at the famous Seema Malaka temple in Colombo, and engaging in Buddhist discourses with monks in world famous tooth-relic Buddha temple in Kandy.

This genre of engagement meant showcasing India’s advantages over China’s profit-driven commercial connections. This new approach, of course, was also complemented by India increasing resource disbursement to counter China’s Belt and Road juggernaut

This genre of engagement meant showcasing India’s advantages over China’s profit-driven commercial connections. This new approach, of course, was also complemented by India increasing resource disbursement to counter China’s Belt and Road juggernaut.

Prime Minister Modi’s pragmatic approach saw him engaging Chinese leaders as well. This was aimed at ensuring maximum benefits with minimal costs for his efforts at recouping India’s enduring historical linkages with neighboring nations. This saw Modi visiting China five times in the last five years, while President Xi Jinping visited India only twice. The result was that the Doklam crisis of 2017 was followed by the two leaders’ April 2018 Wuhan informal summit marking a reset in China-India relations.

Likewise, celebrating India’s engagement with the new government in Malé saw Modi being the only foreign leader attending the swearing-in during November last year. 

Complementing these religious-cultural links was Maldivian President Mohamed Solih’s visit to India last December, resulting in India extending US$1.4 billion in aid spanning over various credit lines and projects. In the midst of impending elections in both India and Maldives in March, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Malé, accompanied by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, to fine-tune India’s promised aid and assistance.

But nothing has marked Modi’s reclamation more than his snubbing of Pakistan and junking of the SAARC. Starting from the outreach with the BRICS summit of October 2016, Modi has been promoting BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Initiative for Technical and Economic Cooperation) as his alternative frame of regional cooperation. 

At the same time, reinforcing his dictum that “terror and talks cannot go together,” the Modi government has not even entertained questions on his possible meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at next week’s Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, in spite of Khan’s repeated public posturing for reviving peace talks, including his recent congratulatory phone call to Modi, he was not invited to the Indian prime minister’s second swearing-in. This leaves little doubt about his vivid reassertion of India’s Neighborhood First policy – sans Pakistan. But even here, coinciding with Modi’s second swearing-in, a visit by China’s second-most-powerful leader, Vice-President Wang Qishan, ensured that Islamabad had some reason for celebration.

It is in this backdrop that this weekend is expected to herald the second chapter of Modi’s Neighborhood First policy. Its second edition is expected to mark a shift from the immediate to the extended neighborhood and from disputed land borders to maritime expanses, making Modi an Indo-Pacific prime minister. Only last month India was reported as having set up an “Indo-Pacific desk” in its Ministry of Foreign affairs. While last time Bhutan hosted Modi’s first foreign visit, his decision to begin his second term with visits to Sri Lanka and Maldives – after inviting leaders of BIMSTEC, Mauritius and the Kyrgyz Republic to his swearing-in – clearly underlines Modi’s expanded vision of India’s neighbors. 

Apart from its geographical connotations, this visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka also underlines Modi’s assertive anti-terror posture that will see him expressing India’s solidarity with victims of the Easter terror attacks in Sri Lanka that killed 260 people, including 11 Indians. Modi and President Maithripala Sirisena will have their second full-fledged formal meetings in as many weeks re-evaluating ongoing and planned partnership projects. The Indian prime minister is expected to visit St Anthony’s Church, the site of first of the Easter blasts in Colombo.

This second edition of Modi’s Neighborhood First policy will see India’s on-the-ground collaboration in building joint efforts to counter terror in its peripheral regions. While India and Sri Lanka have continued sharing real-time information on terror threats, these attacks have seen a team from India’s National Intelligence Agency working on the ground in Colombo, rubbing shoulders with their Sri Lankan counterparts as they investigate various components of the Easter attacks as also the likely presence of sleeper cells of Islamic State (ISIS). 

India-Sri Lanka ties have remained remarkably cordial. In spite of accusations of Indian interference in the historic defeat of president Mahinda Rajapaksa by the united opposition in 2015 elections, Modi has since hosted all of Sri Lanka’s leaders and cultivated warmth and mutual respect with all of them. This explains why India stayed at a safe distance during Sri Lanka’s internal political upheavals during the last quarter of 2018. The result was visible in laudatory congratulatory messages that re-elected Prime Minister Modi received from Rajapaksa as leader of the opposition, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and President Sirisena, who attended Modi’s second swearing-in last week and is hosting Modi in Colombo this weekend.

The same sentiment was also visible in the tone and tenor of messages coming from Maldivian President Solih and former president Mohammed Nasheed, who was recently elected chairman of the newly elected Majlis – the national parliament. Under Nasheed’s stewardship all 87 newly elected members of the national legislature, including the opposition, voted last week on their first resolution to invite Modi to address the Majlis. Such a vote is a legal requirement for any such invitation to any foreign leader from the chairman of the Majlis.

This speech may see Modi not just heralding the second edition of his Neighborhood First policy but also reviving his SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative that has been dormant since it was launched during Modi’s last Indian Ocean tour during March 2015, as well as providing a further boost to his other pet project, Sagarmala, that Sri Lanka has already expressed a desire to become part of. Conceived in the backdrop of the 2005 tsunami, this included India developing its infrastructure along its long coastline and linking modernization of ports to their feeder hinterland areas. 

Like his Shangri-La speech in June last year outlining India’s vision on the Indo-Pacific region, Modi’s speech at the Maldivian Majlis and his other interactions in Malé and Colombo this weekend are expected to provide an outline of his vision for reclaiming this extended neighborhood from China’s ever-expanding influence. Implementing such a vision would, of course, have its own pitfalls and hiccups. For example, Modi has to begin by addressing some of the persistent irritants such as the Teesta River water sharing with Bangladesh, fishing trawlers crossing Sri Lankan territorial waters, a pro-China communist alliance in power in Nepal, and even Bhutan, where democratic elections have often seen speeches airing discomfort with India gaining traction.

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