New Delhi must accept blame for losing ground in the SAARC region; however, Modi has started to fill the void created by Manmohan Singh

Mumbai : Call it a diplomatic masterstroke or course correction of Indian foreign policy, the Narendra Modi government has started ironing out bilateral relations with the SAARC nations. Though seen as a big brother in South Asia – India has been steadily losing ground in the region. New Delhi is a joke in Maldives, a question mark in Sri Lanka, mute in Bangaladesh and Pakistan remains a problem in perpetuity.

The domestic media had rejected Modi as having little knowledge of foreign affairs. The foreign press had branded him as a hardliner Hindu who is interested in building a Hindu rashtra (nation). But by inviting Nawaz Sharif, Modi has started to fill the void that former PM Manmohan Singh created by not visiting Pakistan even once in his 10-year tenure. Former diplomat G Parthasarthy says, “Modi is a PM who has distinctively focused not only on India’s neighbours, but neighbourhood as well. Now he needs to extend his reach beyond Afghanistan to Iran, Central Asia and far East.”

Modi not only caught Islamabad off guard, but has  put the ball in Islamabad’s court. If Sharif’s attending the oath ceremony was a positive response – the attack on Indian mission in Herat is an indication of the things to come. Kabul will soon be undergoing economic, security and political transformation and New Delhi has already flagged-off its concerns of militants turning the guns against India. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has often indicated that Kabul wants India to play a larger role to develop and secure Afghanistan. Having said this, the game in Kabul will impact the terror and counter-terror policies of New Delhi and Islamabad. Any misadventure will limit the Modi-Sharif meet to just another photo opportunity.

At the same time, other SAARC nations are an economic opportunity for India to re-establish its economic footprint in the region. The economic realignment will have a direct impact on India’s goal of dominating the regional geopolitics and stop China from making frequent intrusions into Indian waters. Arm-twisting an economically robust India with the help of the Chinese will be very difficult. In Britain, Modi is seen as a man-to-do-business-with.

Talking to Free Press Journal, two British Parliamentarians MP Preti Patel and Virendra Sharma expressed hope of working with the new government.

Fortunately, after three decades there is a government, which realises that the country’s foreign policy starts on its borders. Under Manmohan Singh the UPA didn’t successfully reach out to immediate neighbours and failed to address the reasons of depleting Indian influence in the region.

By inviting the Mauritian PM Navin Ramgoolam, Modi has made his intensions of increasing India’s sphere of maritime influence in the Indian Ocean very clear. Mauritius is one of the last outposts of Hindus in the south west of Indian Ocean. Reviving and reshaping cultural, economic and diplomatic ties will put New Delhi on a firm ground in the region. Most of China’s trade and oil passes through the sea lines of communications in the East Indian Ocean. The region has become all the more important as American pivot has gained prominent position in the discussion of strategic future of Asia. If Beijing has made inroads in the region, New Delhi must share the blame.

Over the years, New Delhi has complained against the US and China supporting Islamabad, but by reaching out to SAARC nations – New Delhi has sent a clear message to both Islamabad and Beijing that it means business. Modi’s next diplomatic move will require him to engage world powers like the US, Russia and Japan. But Parthasarthy warns against India becoming a client state of the US. Modi will need to secure the national frontiers with the available geography and export of soft power.

PARJANYA BHATT

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