Neighborhood First’ as Modi’s Foreign Policy

Avanish Kumar*

Post-2014, Indian foreign policy has garnered a lot of attention under the charismatic leadership of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is evident from the recent statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of Russia Day on 25th January 2024. While praising Modi’s Foreign Policy, he stated, “India is pursuing an independent foreign policy, which is not easy in today’s world.” He further noted that under the leadership of Modi,
India has one of the highest rates of economic development and growth in the world, and that is also due to the leadership qualities of the incumbent prime minister.” Under his foreign policy doctrine, Prime Minister Modi emphasized a “Neighborhood First’ policy to promote regional stability and prosperity, which underlines the importance of secure and cooperative neighborhoods to rebuild the relationship through diplomatic and personal engagement.

India as a Responsible Neighbour

Immediately after assuming the chair in 2014, Modi stormed while inviting the representatives of all South Asian countries, including Pakistan, to his first swearing-in-ceremony in New Delhi, emphasizing the ‘Neighborhood First’ policy. Continuing his approach, Modi followed the decree while announcing ‘Bhutan’ as his first international trip, calling it a “special relationship.” In his address to Bhutan’s Parliament on 16 June 2014, Modi stated, “The stronger India will be, the better it will be for Bhutan and other SAARC nations. A strong and stable India is needed so that we can help our neighbors.” After that, he made an official trip to Nepal, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, and an impromptu surprise visit to Pakistan to attend the marriage ceremony of Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter, which continuously emphasized his government’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy.

Prime Minister Modi’s desire for a comprehensive and peaceful neighborhood policy can also be spotted in the first presidential address of his government in 2014, which stressed his “determination to work towards building a peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked neighborhood which is essential for the collective development and prosperity of the South
Asian Region
.” Another moment that garnered much attention was his emphasis on the neighborhood first’ policy in his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 27th September 2014. In his address, Modi stated, “India desires a peaceful and stable environment for its development. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with its neighbors. This includes Pakistan. I am prepared to engage in a serious bilateral dialogue with Pakistan in a peaceful atmosphere without the shadow of terrorism to promote our friendship and cooperation.”

During his tenure, Modi demonstrated himself as a very enthusiastic traveler, especially in his first tenure, to enhance India’s global image while travelling and attending a series of high-level summits to establish rapport with his counterpart countries like China, Japan and the United States. Under Modi’s regime, New Delhi has strived hard to attain India’s great power status by consolidating its dominant spot in the South Asian region. New Delhi also expanded its reach in the Indian Ocean region.

Neighborhood Vaccine Diplomacy

As the world saw the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government kept the neighbourhood as the top priority regarding vaccine supplies. India provided free vaccines to Bhutan. Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering stated, “GOI has announced that they will provide vaccines for free, and if we have to procure vaccines, then His Majesty has said he would even provide from his personal resources.” Along with this, Bangladesh also received two million doses of ‘Covishield’ vaccine for free. India also provided vaccines to other neighbouring states like Afghanistan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. On 20 January 2021, Bhutan and Maldives become the first two countries to receive 1.5 lakh & 1 lakh vaccine doses, respectively. Similarly, Bangladesh and Nepal received 2 million and 1 million vaccine doses. India donated 5 lakh vaccine doses to Sri Lanka, and Myanmar received 1.5 million doses. According to sources from the Minister of External Affairs, India’s neighbour has received 29.44% compared to its global supply.

Key Initiatives Undertaken

In the last ten years, Modi’s government revamped key initiatives like rendering the ‘Look East’ policy into the ‘Act East’ policy to improve relations with the Eastern counterparts, including Middle Eastern countries and through the Middle East to Central and South Asia to Southeast Asia. New Delhi also started emphasizing regional forums like SAARC and sub-regional groups like BBIN and the BIMSTEC.

Under his decisive leadership, India resolved the historic ‘Land Boundary Agreement’ with Bangladesh, handled the Doklam crisis with China provided a befitted reply to Pakistan through surgical strikes post-Uri attack, abrogated Articles 35A and 370 to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir disputes, provided vaccines and necessary medicines across the globe including neighbouring states etc. which demonstrates India’s emerging image as part of foreign policy and neighbourhood first policy.

During Modi’s tenure, India has developed both ‘soft power’ images (like the promotion of Yoga, Ayurveda, Indian Cinema, connecting to the Indian diaspora, the opening of AYUSH centres, and providing vaccines during COVID-19 across the globe) and ‘hard power’ image in the form of retaliation against rebel camps inside Myanmar, when 20 soldiers were martyred in an explosive attack in Manipur by the rebels in 2015, surgical strike against terrorist camps in the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir in 2016, and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement on changing its nuclear policy of ‘No First Use’.

Prime Minister Modi has been criticized for his risk-tasking abilities and desire to break the mould of the past, calling it “showmanship over substance.” Many scholars called it the “Modi Doctrine” as he continuously emphasized enlightened national interest as a part of his foreign policy. It should be understood that the primary objectives of foreign policy are to deepen and broaden the ‘dry’ relationships, which are much-needed modifications. The remarkable dynamism of India’s foreign policy in the last ten years is fulfilling India’s ambition of ‘global power’ and becoming a ‘developed’ country by 2047. At a time when India is heading towards Lok Sabha elections soon, several emerging challenges in the international arena in the form of direct ongoing conflict between Russia & Ukraine, Israel & Palestine, the attack on United States troops in Jordan, instability in the Middle East, African regions, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) regions will further test the multi-aligned foreign policy approach. India should continuously put the ‘nations first’ and ‘multi-aligned’ policy as a part of foreign diplomacy, which has remained its core principle and values. India should further strengthen its ties with neighbouring states, i.e., South Asian countries, to maintain peace and stability in the region.

*Ph.D. Scholar, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, Gujarat


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