Rajapaksa won without taking anti-India stand, shows Modi’s Neighbourhood First is working

File photo | Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Mahinda Rajapaksa, in New Delhi | PTI

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India’s Neighbourhood First policy has to be evaluated in the background of a decade-long work by Beijing and the politico-economic advantages it has as a first mover. New Delhi has had many setbacks in its engagements in the region, almost drawing critical remarks of a total failure. However, it is too early to conclude that this aspect of our foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed. Perseverance and determination are two key pillars in maintaining regional balance.

In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas staging a political comeback with a landslide victory is a case in point. For many years, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was seen to be in the strategic embrace of Beijing by New Delhi. It was during Rajapaksa’s previous tenure when Beijing had started its debt diplomacy in Colombo, offering to construct a port that was low on feasibility, the Hambantota Port, and extending high-interest loans that the island nation would never be able to pay back. But in these elections, Rajapaksa did not utter a single strident word against India in the campaign, and he won. It shows that leaders in India’s neighbourhood  such as Nepal Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan might benefit in the short-term by making anti-India statements, but in the longer term, it is in their political interest — both domestically and before the international community — to be seen as an ally of India. In 2005, the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya, had their agenda cut out clearly. They had to save the island nation from chaos, fight against an impending Partition, and vanquish the LTTE or perish. In the next four years, the Rajapaksa brothers, hailing from Southern Sri Lankan province of Hambantota, got rid of the LTTE.

When Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019, it was hailed as giving justice to the Hindus, at least in three countries where the community was being treated as second class citizens. But three countries were not pleased. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called the law “unnecessary”. Clubbing it with the preparation of the citizenship register in Assam, Dhaka promptly called off the scheduled visit to India by its Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momin and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan. The Afghan ambassador to India went public to voice his protest against the CAA and said that his government has been “respecting the minorities, especially our great Sikh brothers and sisters.” Apart from these opposing voices in the neighbourhood, the government was also facing domestic political pressure, with the Congress expressing its reservation against the law. But PM Modi wasn’t deterred by these, and his long-term vision was to minimise Chinese footprint in India’s neighbourhood.

While India’s rise as an economic powerhouse in the region was one of the immediate concerns of the Modi government in 2014, it was equally necessary to keep track of Beijing’s movements in the region and counter its economic clout that severely impacted our security and strategic footprint. With this aim, the Modi government set out to draw a long-term blueprint for regional peace and development, using its geographical advantage and soft power.

In an ever-changing regional dynamic, countries tend to take a pro and anti-stand to suit their strategy and reap political benefits. It was important for New Delhi to circumvent the temporary roadblocks and wait for an opportune moment to flex its muscles. Recent political developments in the region highlight the importance of a long-term plan rather than a knee-jerk short-term reaction.

But New Delhi also has to remember that soft power approach alone will not work in the long run if it is not followed up with optimum performance indicators. Be it Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Myanmar, or other distant neighbours in the region.

Also read: Delhi’s financial aid to Male exceeds $2 billion as Maldives returns to ‘India First’

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