An emphasis on neighbourhood diplomacy by Narendra Modi’s government is not exactly a shift in India’s foreign policy. In many ways, it is a continuation of Manmohan Singh’s Look East policy. It is another matter that the policy fell far short of achieving its goals. Mr Modi seems to be keen that the policy be given a new orientation. The meeting that Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs minister, held earlier this week with Indian envoys in several Asian countries is best viewed as part of Mr Modi’s neighbourhood agenda. The envoys included those in South Asian countries, China, Myanmar and even Central Asian republics. Obviously, no one strategy covers India’s bilateral ties with all these countries. Security concerns demand that relations with Pakistan and China be treated on a different plane from those with most other Asian countries. But there are crucial security issues defining India’s ties with countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan or Sri Lanka. Mr Modi’s visit to Thimphu, his first foreign trip after taking over as prime minister, was an early confirmation of his foreign-policy priorities. If he visits Kathmandu soon, he will send out the same message. There is much that New Delhi needs to do in order to clean up the mess in India-Nepal ties.
But what exactly is new in Mr Modi’s policy for India’s engagement with neighbours? From what he has said and done so far, it is safe to assume that he has no intention of pushing an ultra-nationalist agenda in foreign policy. Whether it is Pakistan or China, an unnecessarily confrontationist strategy does not seem to be his priority. Some leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party are known to be peddlers of a jingoistic policy vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. But Mr Modi has given no hints so far that he favours any such line. On the contrary, his approach to neighbourhood diplomacy seems to be an extension of his domestic policy insofar as it makes economic growth the prime mover. And he is absolutely right in emphasizing the importance of trade in foreign-policy issues. Many of India’s problems with its neighbours have been both a cause and an effect of insufficient economic engagement. Mr Modi has talked of accelerating trade ties and bringing about an economic integration of the region. If trade with India’s neighbours is freed, it could break other barriers and create new opportunities.