Col (retd) R Hariharan
Foreign relations have occupied an important place in Narendra Modi’s vision for India during his just concluded first term as Prime Minister. In fact, ‘Neighbourhood First’ was the central theme when he started off as Prime Minister, inviting the Heads of State of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries for his inaugural function in 2015. However, Pakistan’s continued refusal to give up the use of extremist jihadi outfits operating from its soil to bleed India has prevented SAARC from evolving into a full-fledged effective regional grouping. So, India’s relations with its neighbours have, perforce, been bilateral rather than multilateral.
However, after his resounding victory in the May 2019 general elections, Prime Minister Modi invited the heads of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiativefor Multi-Sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation) countries – Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan – for his swearing inceremony on 30 May 2019. This probably indicates Prime Minister Modi’s shift of focus from ‘Neighbourhood First’ to ‘Act East’ involving the BIMSTEC nations. In fact, Prime Minister Modi is slated to visit the Maldives to address the Majlis (parliament), followed by a visit to Sri Lanka within the first ten days of assuming office for the second term. This seems to indicate that India’s foreign policy priority will now be to build strong relations with its IOR neighbours, particularly Sri Lanka and Maldives.
This will also be in keeping with Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All), launched in 2015, for developing the blue economy of Indian Ocean Rim Countries. The maritime initiative seeks to create a climate of trust and transparency, respect for international maritime rules and increase in maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Bangladesh. Though SAGAR has had moderate success, its importance is increasing more than ever before. The growing strategic power play between China and the USA and its allies in the Indo-Pacific is affecting the strategic interests of India and the BIMSTEC countries.