Revitalise ‘Neighbourhood First’ Vision

The following article was first published in the English daily newspaper Telangana Today on 12 February 2024 (

Revitalise ‘Neighbourhood First’ Vision

By Sushiila Ttiwari, MD, 7Qube Biz Solutions

& D Samarender Reddy, Director, 7Qube Biz Solutions

India, a vibrant democracy and rising economic power, finds itself in a predicament. Despite its impressive internal growth, its relationships with neighbours have been steadily fraying. From the icy ties with Pakistan to the recent turbulence with Nepal and Sri Lanka, a sense of disillusionment seems to permeate the entire South Asian region. While historical baggage and complex geopolitical dynamics play a significant role, the question arises: does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership exacerbate or mitigate these challenges?

As India navigates its relationships with its neighbours, the lens of ancient philosophies, strategic doctrines, and recent incidents — such as the brewing controversy with the Maldives — becomes imperative in understanding the nuances of these ties.

A Legacy of Enmity

Chanakya’s Mandala theory, encompassing the concept of enemies, allies, and the dynamics between them, is a cornerstone in understanding the historical context within which modern Indian foreign policy operates. Though rooted in an ancient context of fragmented kingdoms, it offers a chilling echo in contemporary India’s neighbourhood realities.

The assumption of inherent animosity between immediate neighbours, the strategic manipulation of alliances, and the constant vigilance against perceived encirclement resonate in several present-day conflicts. The complex history of India’s partition, the unresolved Kashmir issue and the legacy of Cold War rivalries with Pakistan all cast long shadows, preventing true reconciliation and mutual trust.

Modi’s Approach

Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy has oscillated between pragmatism and assertiveness. His initial “Neighbourhood First” policy seemed promising, with increased regional outreach and economic cooperation initiatives. However, his “muscular diplomacy” tactics, evident in the Doklam standoff with China and the surgical strikes in Pakistan, have generated apprehension and criticism. His Hindu nationalist rhetoric, coupled with domestic policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act, has further alienated Muslim-majority neighbours like Bangladesh.

Critics argue that Modi’s approach might sometimes prioritise strategic assertiveness over nuanced diplomacy. However, supporters contend that a pragmatic and assertive stance is necessary to safeguard India’s interests and assert its position in an increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape.

The Maldives Conundrum

The recent diplomatic tiff with the Maldives, triggered by derogatory remarks from Maldivian ministers towards Prime Minister Modi, exemplifies the challenges India faces. While the Maldivian government has since condemned the remarks and reshuffled its cabinet, the incident highlights the delicate balance India needs to maintain in its relationships with smaller neighbours. Asserting dominance or resorting to strong-arm tactics can be counterproductive, potentially pushing smaller nations towards other allies like China.

While the specifics of the situation are contextual and multi-faceted, they reflect a broader trend of strained ties with certain neighbouring nations. This episode also underscores the need for responsible social media use and the importance of curbing inflammatory rhetoric, especially from individuals in positions of authority. Moving forward, both India and its neighbours must prioritise communication, de-escalation and a commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes.

Beyond Modi Monolith

To solely blame Modi for India’s strained neighbourhood relations would be simplistic. Internal political realities, the rise of populism across the region, and the growing influence of external powers like China all contribute to the complex tapestry of discord. For instance, Nepal’s recent recalibration of its ties with India is as much a reflection of its own internal political dynamics as it is a reaction to perceived Indian interference. Likewise, Sri Lanka’s economic dependence on China creates a delicate balancing act in its relationship with India.

Bhagavad-Gita’s Compass

The Bhagavad-Gita (12:13) says: “A man should not hate any living creature. Let him be friendly and compassionate to all.” In this quagmire of distrust and realpolitik, the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita offer a crucial counterpoint. Its emphasis on universal compassion, non-violence and the inherent interconnectedness of all beings stands in stark contrast to the Mandala’s adversarial framework. While pragmatism and strategic calculus have their place in international relations, the ethical principles of the Gita could serve as a guiding light for a more sustainable and humane approach to diplomacy.

Compassionate Mandala

Thus, in the realm of foreign policy, India grapples with the challenge of balancing Chanakyan realism with the ethical underpinnings of the Bhagavad-Gita, navigating a course that safeguards national interests while fostering regional stability and cooperation. This complex endeavour requires a leadership approach that intertwines pragmatism with empathy and strategic acumen with diplomatic finesse.

Building genuine trust requires moving beyond transactional relationships and addressing historical grievances with empathy and understanding. Engaging in open dialogue, respecting cultural sensitivities, and prioritising regional cooperation over unilateral actions are crucial steps in this direction.

India’s future as a regional leader hinges on its ability to forge mutually beneficial partnerships based on shared interests and mutual respect. The “Neighbourhood First” vision must be revitalised, not abandoned. By embracing the virtues of the Gita and moving beyond the outdated assumptions of the Mandala, India can build a more peaceful and prosperous South Asia, where nations collaborate for the common good rather than clash in perpetual shadows of suspicion.

The path forward requires nuance, sensitivity and a genuine commitment to building bridges of understanding and cooperation across the region. Only then can India truly claim its rightful place as a compassionate and responsible leader in the international arena.

Ultimately, India’s ability to maintain friendly relationships with its neighbouring countries rests not solely on the shoulders of one leader but on a confluence of historical legacies, geopolitical realities and the collective efforts of successive administrations. While leaders play a pivotal role, the multifaceted nature of international relations demands a comprehensive, nuanced, and context-specific approach — one that transcends the binaries of friend and foe, and encapsulates the essence of mutual respect, dialogue and strategic foresight.

D. Samarender Reddy

Holds degrees in Medicine (MBBS) and Economics (MA, The Johns Hopkins University). Certified programmer. An avid reader. Worked in various capacities as a medical writer, copywriter, copyeditor, software programmer, newspaper columnist, and content writer.

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