The concept of the India’s Neighbourhood First Policy came into being in 2008. It was conceived to bolster relations with certain priority countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India is committed to developing friendly and mutually beneficial relations with all its neighbours.
India is an active development partner and is involved in several projects in these countries.
India’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ focuses on creating mutually beneficial, people-oriented, regional frameworks for stability and prosperity.
India’s engagement with these countries is based on a consultative, non-reciprocal and outcome-oriented approach, which focuses on delivering benefits like greater connectivity, improved infrastructure, stronger development cooperation in various sectors, security and broader people-to-people contacts.
It uses the principles of Samman (respect), Samvad (dialogue), Shanti (peace), Samriddhi (prosperity) and Sanskriti (culture) for better engagement.
The policy is required to handle India’s external threats better, achieve the necessary support in multilateral forums like the UN, curtail Chinese Influence in the region etc.
Purpose of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy
Immediate priority to neighbours:
Priority is to improve the relations with immediate neighbours as peace and tranquillity in South Asia is essential for realizing development agenda. The neighbourhood first policy of actively focuses on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours.
The policy also focuses on cooperating on disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication and also capabilities and expertise in disaster management for all South Asian citizens.
Military and Defence Cooperation:
India is also focusing on deepening security in the region through military cooperation by conducting as well as participating in various defence exercises. Various exercises like Surya Kiran with Nepal, Sampriti with Bangladesh aim to strengthen defence relations.
Also, India has committed to play a greater role in capacity building of the Afghan National Army by providing training to them.
Challenges in India’s Neighbourhood First Policy
Growing Chinese Pressure:
It failed to take a meaningful direction and growing Chinese pressure has prevented the country from winning allies in the region.
Relation with Pakistan, remains India’s biggest diplomatic and security challenge. India’s challenge is to manage relationships with a state which, openly, uses terror as an instrument of state policy and has fractured, multiple power centres.
Afghanistan remains a challenge too. Fragile within and facing state-sponsored external threat from Pakistan, a possible state collapse would spawn jihadist terrorism in all directions from which India is unlikely to remain immune. Indian diplomacy is active in international efforts to stabilise the country.
Interference in Domestic Affairs:
India is interfering in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries especially in Nepal in the violation of their sovereignty.
India is also creating hurdles in free transit and free trade within and beyond Nepal and keeps suppressing its people and government.
Anti-Indian sentiments are getting rooted in the minds of people of region due to perceived notion of India’s big brother attitude and its economic dependence to India.
For instance, the recent step of Demonetization impacted many countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar which use the Indian currency as a parallel currency within their borders.
Impact of India’s Domestic Politics:
India’s domestic policies are creating problems in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, showing India’s neighbourhood first policy faces serious challenges even in friendly territories like Bangladesh.
Impact of India’s Tilt towards West:
India draws closer to the West, particularly through the Quad and other multilateral and mini-lateral initiatives.
But Sri Lanka’s connections with the West are not moving in a good direction as the country’s current government faces increasing criticism from Western capitals on human rightsissues and freedoms.
Terrorism and Illegal Migration:
Over the last three decades India has faced threats, tension, and possibility of terrorist and militant attacks from its immediate neighbourhood. Challenges of illegal migration and smuggling of weapons and drugs require improved security infrastructure at borders.
Recommendations for a better neighbourhood policy
Improving the border infrastructure: More Integrated Check Posts (ICPs)/Land Customs Stations (LCS) and border haats will be built.
Transportation: As the largest country, India should be leading to establish cross-border transport and communication links.
Keeping diplomatic doors open with all neighbouring countries to resolve any arising issues.
Dialogue: India must ensure its neighbour of continuous support for their development. Efforts must be made to strengthen Indian exports in the region.
Continue the already taken steps like humanitarian assistance, implementation of developmental projects, Lines of Credit etc.
Strengthening Markets: India should work with its neighbour in strengthening their markets and its own infrastructure to its neighbours.
Improving people-people connect: Encouraging tourism and sharing of the bonds of common culture and history across the neighbourhood.
Tourism promotion: Since 2020, India has been the largest source of tourist arrivals to Maldives. Large number of visitors come to India from Bangladesh for medical treatment. Many Indians also visit Nepal for religious tourism. India should promote investment in tourism, including medical tourism under the Neighbourhood First Policy.
Soft power: India’s soft power and common culture provide an opportunity for India to strengthen its cultural roots further in the region.
The neighbouring countries are bonded by factors like history, culture, language, and geography, and their policies have mutual implications, so trying to maintain a cordial relationship with them is essential to help India strive better in growth and development.
India’ neighbourhood policy should be based on the principles of Gujral Doctrine. This would ensure India’s stature and strength cannot be isolated from the quality of its relations with its neighbours and there can be regional growth as well.
Integrating India’s regional economic and foreign policy remains a major challenge. Therefore, India should resist compromising bilateral relationships with neighbours for short economic interests.
Regional connectivity must be pursued with greater vigour while security concerns are addressed through cost-effective, efficient and reliable technological measures which are in use in other parts of the world.
India’s immediate neighbourhood directly impacts it geopolitically, geo-strategically and geo-economically because of its vicinity. Thus, working with them is important for India to rise as a superpower. Emphasis must be on sustainable and inclusive development.