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Modi’s neighborhood challenges

Modi’s neighborhood challenges

Narendra Modi was sworn in for his third consecutive term as India’s prime minister on Sunday. The ceremony, held at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, was  attended by leaders from neighboring countries, highlighting strong regional ties. 

Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maldives’ President Mohammad Muizu, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, Seychelles’ Vice-President Amhed Afif, and Mauritius’ President Prithvirajsing Roopun were among the attendees.

Modi, who began inviting his neighboring counterparts when he was elected the prime minister for the time in 2014, has continued with the tradition for his third-term as well, apparently signaling that he will stick to ‘Neighborhood First’ policy. Under Modi’s stewardship, this policy continues to evolve, focusing on mature, nuanced, and practical responses to regional issues. 

A prime example is India's measured approach to anti-India rhetoric from Maldives President Mohammad Muizu, who attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Enhanced development and economic partnerships with neighboring countries have also marked this period, achieving greater regional connectivity, infrastructure improvements, and stronger development cooperation. Now, all South Asian countries are seeking an enhanced economic and development partnership with India avoiding geopolitical and other issues. 

Except with Bhutan, India's relationship with neighboring countries witnessed many highs and lows during Modi’s first two terms as India’s prime minister. With Nepal, significant progress has been made in cultural, economic, and development spheres despite past disputes like the economic blockade and the map row, which still cast a shadow over the relationship. Trust between India and Nepal is yet to return to the high levels seen in 2014.

India’s relations with Pakistan remain strained, affecting regional cooperation and the functionality of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Ties with the Maldives are also fraught, with little signs of improvement. As a regional leader aiming for global influence, India is expected to play a proactive role in mending ties with its smaller neighbors and addressing their concerns. 

Over the past few years, India has projected itself as a leader and voice of the Global South or more importantly South Asia. As a strong prime minister, Modi and his government could have played a vital role to resolve the issues with the South Asian countries. In his third tenure, Modi leads a coalition government. It might not be easy for him to take decisions without the consent of ruling partners.

Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar and his Janata Dal (United), the second-biggest ally, will also have a greater say when it comes to Modi government’s Nepal policy. Though India’s external policy is under the control of the Union government, of late, states are having greater influence on those countries which share borders with them. 

A significant concern for India is the growing Chinese influence in the region. While India seeks to reduce this influence, its neighbors are increasingly looking to China for assistance and investments. As Modi looks ahead to lead India for the historic third consecutive term, smaller neighbors like Nepal will be keenly watching India’s ties with China, because they believe improved India-China relationship will make it easier for them to deal with both countries. 

But foreign affairs experts say the India-China relationship, strained by border disputes, is unlikely to improve soon, impacting India’s relations with its smaller neighbors. Modi’s third term presents a long list of tasks to strengthen ties with neighboring countries, essential for regional connectivity, collaboration, and stability. The Nepal-India relationship, in particular, is expected to sail smoothly without major hurdles.