Peace and stability at the national, regional and global levels are closely linked to the pursuit of the foreign policy of any country. Stability in the immediate neighborhood or region is vital for any government to effectively and uninterruptedly promote its national interests and elevate its position in the global matrix. As Indian foreign policy analyst C Raja Mohan aptly puts it, “Without enduring primacy in its own neighborhood, no nation can become a credible power on the world stage.”
The Modi government has understood very well the importance of cultivating and maintaining relations with its neighboring countries. Since taking power in 2014, the Modi government has emphasized the “neighborhood first” policy as an integral part of Indian foreign policy. The policy strives to establish cordial and synergistic relations with its South Asian neighbors in various fields such as economy, science and technology, research and education, among others.
However, lasting stability has long been a concern for the South Asian region. In South Asia, persistent political, economic and social unrest has continually troubled peace and stability in India’s neighboring countries and in the region as a whole. Even today, the current situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka is marked by fragility.
Given concerns over stability in the region with the neighborhood embroiled in a lingering problem, India’s role in managing the crisis is important. The issue of stability, combined with China’s growing footprint to leverage the situation in its favor, compels India to develop a better management strategy to enhance its goodwill by demonstrating its generosity and strategic ability in its neighboring countries, which are relatively small in terms of geographic size and economic power.
India’s Neighborhood First Policy can also be seen as a manifestation of the Modi government’s vision to build a Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world as one family). Vaccine diplomacy and development assistance based on mutual respect and equal partnership are two of the most important pillars to propel India’s Neighborhood First policy.
Vaccine diplomacy was seen as a pragmatic response to the global pandemic and a way to reinforce its image as a responsible leader regionally and globally. It should be noted that Indian diplomacy, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, has resulted in India being recognized on the world stage as a harbinger of hope providing needed aid to needy nations and their peoples around the world. As part of India’s Neighborhood First policy, India, through its vaccine diplomacy (Vaccine Master), extended its assistance to many countries around the world and neighboring countries during the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, and although India was hit very hard, especially in the second wave, India has managed the situation very well to overcome relatively the worst effects of the pandemic, and at the same time, help to other countries to take up the challenge.
The first beneficiaries of Maitri vaccine in the South Asia region are Bangladesh (INR 22.5928 million in total procurement in the form of trade aid and grants, followed by Nepal (INR 9.499 million in procurement); Sri Lanka (INR 1.2640 million INR); Afghanistan (INR 1.4680 million); Bhutan (INR 0.55 million) and Maldives (INR 0.312 million). India has also pledged $10 million to the Southern Association Fund -Asian Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to fight the global pandemic.
True to the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, India is also providing all possible assistance to Afghanistan and Sri Lanka to meet their myriad challenges through its development assistance initiative. It is worth mentioning that since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, India has provided wheat and other essential foodstuffs and Covid-19 vaccines as humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. In its budget for 2022-2023, India has allocated an amount of INR 2,000 million for development assistance to Afghanistan.
The Indian government has allocated INR 62,920 million in its budget for 2022-23 for development assistance to neighboring countries of India, Africa and Latin America. Under development assistance, the Indian government has allocated INR 22,660 million to Bhutan, INR 7,500 million to Nepal, INR 6,000 million to Myanmar, INR 3,600 million to Maldives, INR 3,000 million to Bangladesh and INR 2,000. million in Sri Lanka, respectively.
In view of the current severe economic crisis in Sri Lanka, India has agreed to provide a $1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka. Moreover, India has sent fuel to Sri Lanka to deal with the electricity crisis. Apart from this, India has also been assisting Sri Lanka in supplying food grains to address the shortage of essential foodstuffs.
India’s necessary assistance to South Asian countries by prioritizing neighboring countries in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, especially in providing assistance to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in times of crisis , testifies to the importance of India for its neighborhood policy first.
There are other reasons to push for the neighborhood first policy in the future: firstly, sustained engagement with neighboring countries will facilitate the creation of a cordial atmosphere in the region, which has been a constant obstacle to the establishment of stability, confidence and progress in the region. Stability will allow India to pursue its foreign policy objectives and facilitate growth and development in other South Asian countries. Second, by providing the necessary assistance, India can strengthen its position in the region and achieve both economic and strategic depth vis-à-vis China. Therefore, there is a greater need for sustained engagement with neighboring countries. Third, priority should be given to interpersonal relationships and deep cultural affinities for lasting cordiality and stability. In addition, emphasis should be placed on the rapid fulfillment of its commitments for the overall development of the region.