Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 12, 2019
India in pivotal geographies: South Asia

In 2014, Narendra Modi invited the leaders of all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to attend his swearing-in ceremony as prime minister. The move highlighted the value that India placed on its neighbours. Indeed, the Modi government’s policy on the South Asian nations has focused on improving connectivity, building on cultural and religious ties, and providing developmental and humanitarian assistance. India’s increasing outreach to its neighbours must also be seen in the context of China’s growing economic and military presence in the region. The following sections examine India’s relations with the nations of South Asia.


India and Afghanistan have always shared warm ties; the Modi and Ashraf Ghani era has been no different. India’s development assistance and large- scale infrastructure projects are welcomed in Afghanistan, with New Delhi constructing the parliament building in Kabul (inaugurated by Modi in December 2015) and the Afghan-India Friendship Dam in Heart (inaugurated in June 2016). The signing of the Trilateral Trade and Transit Corridor Agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and India in May 2016 for the development of the Chabahar port was a major step in expanding the possibilities of trade between New Delhi and Kabul. India took over operations of the port in January 2019 and in the following month, Afghanistan sent its first export shipment to India using the port. In 2016, India pledged US$1 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan over the next five years. In January 2019, both sides signed 11 MoUs worth US$9.5 million in areas of infrastructure and public services.<1> While the US government hopes to have successful peace negotiations with the Taliban, India has continuously supported the sovereignty of the Kabul government and has voiced their disapproval of any agreement that undermines the legitimacy of the democratically elected government. Although after more than two decades of a policy of non-engagement with the Taliban, India did send two observers to the Moscow conference with the Taliban.


India’s relations with Bangladesh have focused on enhancing trade, and improving connectivity and transit facilities to India’s northeastern states. During Modi’s June 2015 visit to Dhaka, India and Bangladesh finally agreed on the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement, resolving the 41-year- old border issue between the two countries. Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also inaugurated the ‘India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline Project’ from Siliguri, West Bengal to Parbatipur, a project worth INR 34.6 million. In addition, new railway lines from Dhaka to West Bengal and new bus services between Kolkata, Dhaka and Agartala were inaugurated.<2> In November 2015, a standard operating procedure for an agreement on coastal shipping was finalised between government representatives agreeing to make way for the use of eight bilateral waterways.<3> During Prime Minister Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in April 2017, some 22 agreements were signed in the areas of defence, nuclear energy, cyber security and media. India has extended two lines of credit (LOCs) during bilateral visits, including a US$3-billion LOC in 2015 and US$4.5 billion in 2017, for 17 identified development projects in the country, including the upgrading of ports. The growing synergy in China- Bangladesh defence cooperation is one of the reasons why India has been keen to build its defence partnership with Bangladesh. In 2017, India provided a US$500-million line of credit for defence purchases; it was only a fraction of the China-Bangladesh defence partnership.<4>


It was to Bhutan where Modi made his first state visit as prime minister, stating that it was a “natural choice,” because of the “unique and special relationship between the two countries”; he wished to underscore India’s commitment to the small nation.<5> The prime minister inaugurated India’s assistance projects in the country, including the building of the Supreme Court and laying the foundation stone for the 600-MW Kholongchu hydroelectric project, a joint venture between two countries, estimated to cost INR 400 million.<6> In June 2017, Chinese troops entered the Dokhlam plateau with equipment to build a road towards a Bhutanese army camp; Bhutan raised its objections. At Thimpu’s request, India stepped in and stopped the construction, leading to a standoff. Over 73 days, Bhutan and India engaged in intense negotiations and high-level diplomacy. While India’s relationship with Bhutan continues to face challenges as a result of regional security dynamics, hydropower generation has been an important area of cooperation and holds potential for the future.


Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal in 17 years in August 2014 and stepped up engagement and assistance to the country. In 2015, after the massive earthquake that struck Kathmandu, India was quick to reach out to Nepal in the recovery and rebuilding efforts, offering the country some US$67 million in relief assistance.<7>  Relations hit a rough patch when Nepal accused India of enforcing a nearly six-month-long blockade at the border after the Madhesi protests in 2016.<8> The shutdown of the border halted the entry to Nepal of fuel and other petroleum products and important cargo from India. Despite repeated assurances from New Delhi that they had nothing to do with the blockage and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to meet Modi, India was unable to convince Nepal. During Oli’s second term, there was a concerted effort to improve ties. Modi visited Nepal on the back of Oli’s April 2018 trip and inaugurated the Ramayana circuit and a bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya, focusing particularly on the two countries’ cultural and religious ties.


India’s relationship with Maldives suffered after President Abdulla Yameen came to power in 2013. His detention of political opponents and judges, and his clampdown on freedom of speech was strongly opposed by India.<9> Relations reached a new low when the Yameen government terminated the contract for India to renovate the Male airport. The arrest and trial of Mohammad Nasheed, former president who was friendly with India and Yameen’s cosying up to Beijing negatively affected the relationship between the two countries. The new government of Mohamed Ibrahim Solih, who defeated Yameen in October 2018 has once again led to the warming of ties. During Solih’s visit to New Delhi, India pledged financial assistance of US$1.4 billion for the debt- ridden country, along with the signing of four MoUs on mutual cooperation. There is a visible convergence between the priorities in the assistance offered by Modi and the Male government’s economic vision.<10>


India’s relationship with Pakistan has always been tumultuous; it was no different in the first term of Prime Minister Modi, with New Delhi’s relations with Islamabad being repeatedly tested. Although Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended Modi’s 2014 inauguration and Modi made a surprise visit to Sharif ’s hometown in December 2015, the bonhomie between the two leaders was short-lived. In January 2016, terrorists from Pakistan entered and attacked the Pathankot air force base, killing seven soldiers. The government allowed Pakistan investigators to visit the site of the attack and collect their own evidence, after they denied any involvement in the attack. Despite such attempts by India to force Pakistan to acknowledge their guilt, Islamabad remained unapologetic and accusatory. A few months later, in September, militants from Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked an air force base in Uri, killing 19 soldiers. The government retaliated a few days later by conducting surgical strikes in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir against terrorist camps. Predictably, Pakistan denied that any strike took place. The arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Indian Naval Officer, on the suspicion of ‘espionage’ and ‘sabotage activities’ against Pakistan, caused additional harm to bilateral relations, especially since Jadhav was denied consular access and was sentenced to death by a military court in an opaque and arbitrary trial.

The election of Imran Khan in July 2017 did not bring about change. As Khan inaugurated the Kartarpur corridor linking a gurdwara in the city to India’s Gurdaspur district, with visa-free travel, there was a momentary thaw in hostilities as the government sent representatives for the inauguration ceremony. In February 2019, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of CRPF forces in Pulwama, killing 40 soldiers. India responded by conducting aerial strikes on terror camps in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Pakistan then targeted military installations in Kashmir, shooting down a MiG-21 fighter jet and capturing the pilot. Although the pilot was released by Pakistan the next day, the damage had already been done and India and Pakistan were once again back to square-one. The vacillation of the political establishment when it comes to deciding on a long-term plan on dealing with Islamabad has unfortunately been the centrepiece of the Modi government’s Pakistan policy

Sri Lanka

The Modi government has moved with speed and intensity to repair India’s ties with one of its most important strategic partners, which suffered during the presidency of Mahindra Rajapaksa. Since 2014, New Delhi and Colombo have intensified their political engagement with a number of mutual visits. Cultural diplomacy has been a crucial part of India’s engagement in Sri Lanka, with the government developing the Ramayana train in Sri Lanka and the Buddhist circuit in India. During the celebrations of International Vesak Day in May 2017, Modi highlighted the cultural ties between the two countries. Through his message about Buddhism, he sought to take the relationship away from the baggage of Tamil politics and place it within the ambit of cultural unity.<11>

To be sure, economic engagement between India and Sri Lanka has remained weak. Despite a large number of bilateral visits, there has been little substance to show for it. While an MoU signed in 2017 saw a roadmap for the future—improving economic ties, promoting Indian investments, and pushing for economic partnerships—not much has been done. Despite the establishment of a joint working group on fisheries and a hotline between the coast guards of the two countries, the frequent incidents of Indian fishermen being arrested for “poaching” across the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) remains a problem.<12>

Figure 12: Total Trade between India and South Asian States (value in US $ millions)

Source: Export Import Data Bank, Department of Commerce, Government of India, New Delhi.

Table 4: High-Level Bilateral Visits

Source:Briefs of India’s Bilateral Relations, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

While the Modi government has continued to build India’s bilateral relationship with its neighbours, it has demonstrated that its “neighbourhood first” policy is a strategic necessity and reality. China is increasing its aid and developmental assistance for South Asian states, who are eager to grow their economies while balancing between India and China in their neighbourhood. China’s Belt and Road Initiative boasts infrastructure projects that have the potential to regionally isolate India, if encircled by Chinese allies. As India continues to work through these geopolitical dynamics, it must continue to build and nurture its relationship with its South Asian neighbours.

This article originally appeared in special report Looking Back looking Ahead.

<1> Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “India signs 11 MoU’s worth $9.5 million with Afghanistan,The Economic Times, 21 January 2019. <2> Rakhahari Chatterji, Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Pratnashree Basu and Sreeparna Chatterji, “India- Bangladesh Connectivity: A Year after Modi’s Visit,” Observer Research Foundation, June 2016. <3> “India  and  Bangladesh  Sign  Standard  Operating  Procedure  (SOP)  to Operationalise Agreement on Coastal Shipping,” Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, 15 November 2015. <4> The Wire Staff, “India, Bangladesh Sign 22 Agreements, Discuss Water Sharing,The Wire, 9 April 2017. <5>Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s Visit to Bhutan,” Narendra Modi, 19 June 2014. <6>Bhutan-India Hydropower Relations,” Royal Bhutanese Embassy. <7> Pramod Jaiswal, “India- Nepal Relations: Mixed Fortunes,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 16 August 2017, . <8> Krishna Pokharel, “Nepal Blockade Ends But Protests Continue,The Wall Street Journal, 9 February 2016. <9>Maldives: New government must break with repressive past,” Amnesty, 25  September  2018. <10> Samatha Mallempati, “After Hiccups, India and Maldives Target Economic Cooperation,The Wire, 20 December 2018. <11> Sreemoy Talukdar, “Narendra Modi in Sri Lanka: PM is transforming India’s foreign policy through soft power and cultural diplomacy,Firstpost, 12 May 2017. <12> Husanjot Chahal, “India-Sri Lanka: Reorienting the Relationship?” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 28 June 2017.
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Kriti M. Shah

Kriti M. Shah

Kriti M. Shah was Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at ORF. Her research primarily focusses on Afghanistan and Pakistan where she studies their ...

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