Strengthening Regional Bonds


Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Seychelles reaffirmed their strong friendship with India by attending the June 9 oath-taking ceremony, writes Keshav Pradhan

One image that caught attention within and outside India when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the BJP assumed office on June 9 was that of the guests from seven countries spreading from the east African coast to the Indian Ocean and to the Himalayas.
Seated in the forecourt of the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan, the venue of the swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi, were Sheikh Hasina, Tshering Tobgay, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Pravind Kumar Jugnauth (Prime Ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mauritius respectively), Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mohamed Muizzu (Presidents of Sri Lanka and the Maldives respectively) and Ahmed Afif (Vice-President of Seychelles).
Like India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives are part of the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Owing to various reasons, the two remaining SAARC nations, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, were not invited to the ceremony.
Guiding stars: Neighbourhood First & SAGAR
For quite some time, India has been trying to develop, nurture and strengthen its relations with its neighbours under the banners of Neighbourhood First and SAGAR (Security and Growth of All in the Region). SAGAR is aimed at fortifying India’s ties with its maritime neighbours.
As part of the twin diplomatic campaigns, New Delhi has introduced the practice of inviting heads of friendly neighbouring countries to witness the assumption of power by a new government at the Centre. The first time it did so was in 2014 when the NDA assumed office under Modi’s leadership.
It had then invited heads of all SAARC nations, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. The presence of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Modi government’s first take-over ceremony created considerable optimism about an improvement in Indo-Pak relations that had nosedived after the Kargil conflict in 1999.
New Delhi invited heads of nations belonging to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to witness the ascension of the Modi-led NDA to power for a second consecutive term in 2019. The BIMSTEC comprises India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. 
Hosted in accordance with the same diplomatic tradition, the June 9 ceremony seemed to have generated considerable positivity between India and the seven invitee countries.
This became evident the moment the Maldives President accepted New Delhi’s invitation amid the turbulence he himself had created in his country’s traditional ties with India by getting closer to China last year.
The arrival of Hasina, Tobgay, Dahal and Wickremesinghe and their subsequent public statements indicated their countries’ growing affinity with India’s Neighbourhood First Policy.
New Delhi maintains that it accords paramount importance to its neighbours to promote both bilateral and multilateral ties in South Asia and the region extending from the Bay of Bengal to the western end of the Indian Ocean.
India’s confidence emanates from the fact that it’s the only country that is connected to all nations in the region either by land or sea, or by both. Without its support, trade, and commerce between different SAARC, Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean countries will either be very difficult or extremely expensive.
Continuity as friendship propeller
Most of India’s friends hope that the continuity of rule by the same dispensation in New Delhi may significantly help in promoting economic growth and people-centric friendship under landmark initiatives like Neighbourhood First, Act East Policy, BIMSTEC, Bangladesh-Bhutan-India Nepal (BBIN) and SAGAR.
Besides, SAARC-run economic systems such as the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta) and SAARC Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) are already there to boost bilateral as well as multilateral trade.
Such continuity of rule in Bangladesh, where Hasina took charge for a fourth successive term earlier this year, is believed to be one of the key reasons why Dhaka and New Delhi have moved so close to each other in recent years.
Likewise, Bhutan recently elected Tobgay, known to have a soft corner for India, as its PM again after a gap of five years. He has the distinction of attending all three swearing-in ceremonies of Modi, whom he fondly calls his guru. Between 2014 and 2019, the Bhutanese PM was serving his first term in office.
In Nepal, Dahal managed to retain power by replacing his partner, the Nepali Congress, with his friend-turned-foe, Kharga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) last month.
If the Nepali Congress is known for its pro-Delhi leaning, Oli is considered to be soft towards Beijing. Despite this, Dahal attended the assumption of power by the NDA government amid controversy over his government’s recent decision to include Kalapani in maps on Nepal’s currency notes.
Both Kathmandu and New Delhi claim Kalapani, close to the Uttarakhand-Tibet-Nepal tri-junction, as their own. The dispute hit the headlines in 2020 when India built a road in Kalapani and Nepal under Oli put it on its map in retaliation. Dahal, in power since December 2022, has refrained from taking up this matter with India.
In view of all this, S. Jaishankar’s appointment as India’s External Affairs Minister for a second consecutive term may come in handy for Delhi while dealing with neighbourhood leaders, most of whom he is familiar with.
Marching along highway of hope
Modi had once described as ‘Sonali Adhdhaya’ (golden chapter) the present phase of India-Bangladesh ties. Bhutan may go even farther as far as proximity to India is concerned.
Occasions such as the June 9 ceremony may encourage every invitee country to discuss matters of bilateral or multilateral importance in a forceful, cordial, and constructive manner.
Almost all of them recognise New Delhi’s rapidly growing regional and global importance. India is a key member of QUAD, G20 and many other influential international security and economic groups.
India’s neighbours, which are bound by a common history, culture, heritage, geography and economy, acknowledge trade, energy, infrastructure, connectivity, defence, science, and security as pillars of their friendship with New Delhi.  
(The author is an ex-editor of The Times of India who writes on diplomatic/SAARC affairs, Nepal, Bhutan, and China-Tibet issues; views expressed here are his own) India News Network

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