Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the architect of India’s ‘neighborhood first’ policy, doesn’t have many friends in the region. Moreover, enamored with big powers like the US and China, the Indian media give small states in the subcontinent scant attention. Even the little attention it gets is invariably negative. Take the latest coverage of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections. With an overwhelming majority for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the party of the Rajapakshas, a foregone conclusion, the fear was that the island country would slide further into China’s orbit. That is not the least of India’s worries.
India-Bangladesh ties took a nosedive when Modi brought the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The legislation bars the path to citizenship for new Muslim migrants in India. As most of these migrants originate in Bangladesh, the CAA’s goal was clear enough. As if to rub it in, the BJP also accused Bangladesh of systematically torturing its Hindu minority. Bangla Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, otherwise a staunch Indian ally, subsequently came under immense domestic pressure to distance herself from New Delhi and to inch closer to Beijing.
There is also a growing unease in Bhutan over its tight embrace by India and New Delhi’s attempts to keep it from directly dealing with China. This was partly the reason behind the 2017 Doklam crisis, and behind China’s latest claim to a new territory in Bhutan. China wants to settle its borders with Bhutan through land swaps, which India vehemently opposes. Bhutan’s outreach to China isn’t hard to understand either: If India is gaining immense economic advantages of trading with China, why can’t Bhutan?
India’s relations with Pakistan have never been worse. With the Maldives, things are a little better after the election of India-friendly Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as president in 2018. Yet it’s wistful thinking to believe the Maldives, with Mandarin-speaking tourists as its economic lifeline, will suddenly agree to distance itself from China.
Nor would it be an exaggeration to say Nepal-India relations have hit rock-bottom. All official talks between the two have been put off, indefinitely. The influence of the Chinese in Kathmandu has increased alarmingly. So where did Modi go wrong in the neighborhood?
During his six years in office Modi seems to have cared about little else other than consolidating his Hindu vote bank. This was the calculation behind the repeated military strikes against Pakistan, the promulgation of a new map of Jammu and Kashmir—which included the Nepali territory of Kalapani—the amendment of the citizenship act, and his latest inauguration of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. As Arundhati Roy pointed out in her recent piece for The Wire, Modi timed his Ayodhya visit with the first anniversary of India stripping of J&K of its statehood.
Besides using South Asian forums to isolate Pakistan, the neighborhood has never been Modi’s priority. China is being hounded by the world for bungling its initial Covid-19 response. And yet it continues to tighten its grip on South Asia. It is curious that smaller democracies in the region seem to trust authoritarian China more than they trust democratic India. Attributing this to China’s ‘checkbook diplomacy’, or to the old mistrust of India, the traditional hegemon, would be a cop-out. Nor will it do much to resurrect India’s flagging image.