Is New Delhi Winning Back its Neighbours?

This week marked a hectic schedule of business in the Indian Parliament. After much hassling, the Rajya Sabha finally ratified India’s land swap agreement with Bangladesh, in a rare show of bipartisanship. For months, analysts have touted the deal as a game-changer in New Delhi’s fight against illegal immigration across the porous border with Bangladesh. The exchange of enclaves under the agreement will allow India fortify its border with Bangladesh and carry out unhindered administration along the line too.

But the land deal with Dhaka means a lot more to New Delhi than a mere exchange of enclaves or fortification of the international border. Consider Prime Minister Modi’s larger neighborhood policy. Since coming to power, the Prime Minister has emphasized the need for New Delhi to engage positively with the rest of the neighborhood. All major countries, save for Pakistan, have been visited by the Prime Minister himself. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has been to Bangladesh previously and Modi himself is expected to visit that country some time soon. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar too has been on the road, on a highly publicized ‘SAARC Yatra’.

All these travels were not without good reason. The great and unmet challenge of Indian foreign policy has long been New Delhi’s lack of meaningful engagement with its neighbors. Many South Asian nations, in fact, maintain far more productive relationships with faraway Beijing than they do with neighboring New Delhi. And Prime Minister Modi called upon his diplomats to set that right. Over the last year, several grand projects have been proposed by New Delhi for collaborative partnership with its neighbors – from a ‘SAARC satellite’ to an extended free trade region.

New Delhi’s greatest challenge in fulfilling its stop-start relationships with the rest of the neighborhood comes from within rather than from outside. India’s neighbors are not all inimical to the idea of a good relationship. Rather, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan have often initiated closer ties with India in order to partake in India’s economic growth – only to be left unfulfilled. This is because of the way New Delhi’s internal politics works. For decades now, India’s bilateral relationships with its neighbors have more often been the subject of domestic politics than foreign policy. The Manmohan Singh administration looked to conclude a water-sharing deal with Bangladesh, for example, but had to retract in the face of opposition from West Bengal. Then, in Sri Lanka, New Delhi had to bow to domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu and leave its equation with Colombo hanging perilously.

Such repeated backtracking has greatly hampered India’s ability to engage with its neighbors. Often, deals concluded between New Delhi and its neighbors have been subjected to opposition back at home, and delayed indefinitely. Deprived by New Delhi, neighbors often start looking to Beijing, whose foreign policy is relatively more consistent and free from domestic political pressure.

If India must beat China in its own backyard, then New Delhi has to start by building domestic consensus around its neighborhood policy. That is why the passage of the Bangladesh land deal is so crucial. For over four decades, this issue has been left unresolved, for various political reasons. By acting in unison, New Delhi has finally shown that it has the ability to come together on critical issues of foreign policy, rather than allow democracy derail key neighborhood deals.

Holding foreign policy hostage in the name of regional politics is not in India’s national interest. The Bangladesh land deal is but one deal. To win back its neighbors, New Delhi needs to continue to act in unity and with purpose on all its other proposals.

(c) 2015, Swarajya