News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay  » News » Neighbourhood First At Modi's Swearing-In

Neighbourhood First At Modi's Swearing-In

June 09, 2024 09:32 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Engagement with neighbours is a strategic imperative, and not an option, asserts Rup Narayan Das.

IMAGE: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives to attend Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony, New Delhi, June 8, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

It was very much expected that Prime Minister elect Narendra Damodardas Modi would extend invitations to the leaders of major South Asian countries for his swearing in ceremony on Sunday commensurate with India's policy of 'Neighbourhood First'.

Engagement with neighbours is a strategic imperative, and not an option.

One can choose one's friends, but not one's neighbours. It augurs well that most world leaders including US President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and leaders of the South Asian countries including Dr Mohamed Muizzu of the Maldives have congratulated Modi for his victory in the general elections to the Lok Sabha.

Modi had invited leaders of South Asian countries for his first swearing in ceremony in May 2014.

He invited leaders of BIMSTEC countries along with the Mauritius prime minister and the president of Kyrgyzstan for his second swearing in 2019.

While these thoughtful gestures reflect India's tradition and cultural moorings of partaking good times and bad times with near and dear ones, it is laden with strategic intent at a time when China's foot print in the region including in the Indian Ocean Region has become conspicuous.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu on the sidelines of the COP28 Summit in Dubai, December 2, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Of particular strategic importance is the invite to President Muizzu and his consent to grace the swearing-in ceremony.

Muizzu was elected President of the island nation IN November 2023 on an orchestrated 'India Out' campaign, believed to have been backed by China in its grey zone tactics of winning a war without fighting.

Since his election, Muizzu has pursued a hardline stance towards India and asked Indian military personnel posted in the archipelago to leave the Maldives. Presumably this was at the behest of Beijing.

Departing from the traditional policy of visiting India first, Muizzu chose to visit China first after his election and signed critical defence deals much to India's chagrin.

Prime Minister Modi's visit to the picturesque Lakshadweep Island in April this year and the display of his pictures in the blue logons in the social media unfortunately evoked critical comments in Maldives including by some politicians.

The boycotting of the Maldives by Indian tourists in response to snide remarks on Modi affected the Maldives tourism industry and its economy. Now Maldives is in push back mode trying to repair the damage.

Its foreign minister visited India last month and held discussion with External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar.

What further exacerbated the strained relations between India and the archipelago nation is that Muizzu's pro-China People's National Congress trounced the pro-India Maldives Democratic Party in the election held in April this year for its Parliament.

The Maldives Democratic Party follows an 'India First' policy. Even in Maldives' fragmented domestic politics, there is a groundswell of goodwill for India.

Realising all these dimensions, India has responded to the evolving dynamics very prudently and in a statesman-like manner by refraining from making any irresponsible statements.

India didn't curtail its developmental assistance to the Maldives in its budget allocation in the last budget.

IMAGE: President Droupadi Murmu presents a RuPay card to Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth during her three-day visit to Mauritius, March 12, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Ahmed Afif, the vice-president of the Seychelles, a strategically important island nation, is also attending the swearing-in ceremony.

Sri Lanka, yet another littoral State in the Indian Ocean, is reaching out to India.

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe is attending the swearing-in ceremony. The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa had attended Modi's first swearing in ceremony in May 2014.

In recent times, China's footprint in the Indian Ocean Region has been increasing posing threat to India's security interest.

In April this year, when India issued a long no fly zone notice over the Bay of Bengal for ballistic missile tests from the Abdul Kalam island off the east cost of Odisha, the Indian Navy kept a close vigil on China's 'research ' vessels in the IOR.

These research vehicles are equipped with large antennae, advanced sensors and electronic equipment to track the trajectory of ballistic missiles as well as electronic snooping.

In deference to India's sensitivity, Sri Lanka has imposed a year-long moratorium on foreign research ships including Chinese vessels.

China has already executed a 99-year lease of Hambontota port in Sri Lanka with the State entity Merchants Ports Holding. The port envisages building oil and gas terminals, berths and port facilities, like Gwadar port in Pakistan.

Though China and Sri Lanka claim the port is merely a commercial venture, its future use as a strategic asset for China cannot be ruled out.

Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth is also gracing the swearing-in ceremony. Besides close cultural and ethnic ties with India, Mauritius occupies an important position in India's security matrix in the Indian Ocean Region.

In February this year Modi and his Mauritian counterpart together inaugurated a new airstrip and a jetty in the Agalega islands, boosting Mauritius's capability to curb illegal activities in its vast exclusive economic zone.

IMAGE: Sheikh Hasina being received at Delhi airport on her arrival. Photograph: ANI Photo

Bangladesh President Sheikh Hasina, who was recently re-elected, is also gracing the event.

Besides, cultural, linguistic and historical convergence, Bangladesh is also a very important strategic partner of India.

China is also engaged in Bangladesh in a big way through its Belt and Road Initiative including in developing ports.

Bangladesh is also experiencing the debt burden of China.

The leaders of two important land locked neighbours -- Nepal and Bhutan -- are also participating in the swearing in ceremony.

China's penetration to the Himalayan kingdom in recent years has created some anxiety in India.

Beijing's growing footprints in India's neighbourhood is not devoid of security implications.

Taking advantage of the political slugfest in Nepal and the unease relations with India, Beijing has deepened its engagement with Nepal.

Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda''s presence and meeting with Modi during his visit to Delhi is likely to boost India's relationship with Nepal.

IMAGE: Modi and his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay inaugurates the Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck Mother and Child Hospital in Thimphu, March 23, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay's presence at in the swearing in ceremony is no less significant.

In India's Neighbourhood First outreach, Modi's first visit abroad after he became prime minister in 2014 was to Bhutan; he also visited Bhutan in February.

The Himalayan Kingdom occupies important position in India's security.

Bhutan and China are making progress in their boundary talks. New Delhi is watchful of the progress which may have security implications for India.

The attendance of leaders of India's neighbours is Modi's first major diplomatic engagement before he travels to Italy to participate in the G-7 meeting in mid-June.

Dr Rup Narayan Das is a former senior fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and also Indian Council of Social Science Research. Views expressed are personal.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Get Rediff News in your Inbox: