Home » Modi’s 3rd Inauguration Showcases a Focus on India’s Himalayan and Maritime Neighbors

Modi’s 3rd Inauguration Showcases a Focus on India’s Himalayan and Maritime Neighbors


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned to office for a third consecutive term, but this time at the helm of a coalition government. To accommodate alliance partners, new faces have been introduced into his Cabinet, reflecting a blend of continuity and change. Amid these adjustments, Modi has strategically retained control over key ministries, including the Ministry of External Affairs. 

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a trusted and seasoned diplomat, will continue in his role for a second term. Jaishankar’s reappointment underscores Modi’s confidence in his proven track record over the past five years, particularly in navigating complex international landscapes and advancing India’s foreign policy objectives.

With Jaishankar continuing, the BJP-led coalition government has maintained the stability and continuity of India’s diplomatic strategy. Modi 3.0 pledges to persist with key foreign policy initiatives, particularly focusing on neighboring countries. This commitment was evident at his Cabinet’s inauguration on June 9, to which Modi invited leaders from Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan, underscoring their strategic importance. 

The guest list at Modi’s inaugurations in 2014, 2019, and 2024 have been more than just a formality. The presence of foreign leaders from neighboring countries is a calculated geopolitical move emphasizing India’s unwavering commitment to the “Neighborhood First Policy” and “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) vision. This signals India’s strategic consolidation of New Delhi’s regional influence, particularly in the face of the looming China challenge across the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. 

By inviting the leaders of two Himalayan neighbors – Nepal and Bhutan – India indicates its intent to fortify its Himalayan frontiers, especially given China’s increasing assertiveness along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). During Modi’s last two terms, Nepal and Bhutan have proved to be a litmus test for India’s Neighborhood First policy, with China actively attempting to create a sphere of influence.

In Nepal, despite Modi’s phenomenal welcome in 2014, New Delhi faced a “go back India” campaign following the border blockade in 2015, and the ongoing territorial dispute continues to raise the nationalistic temperature against India. While it addresses the trust issues with Nepal, India fears China taking advantage. Therefore, Modi 3.0 will look to carefully engage to rebuild trust and strengthen bilateral relations, addressing mutual concerns to counter China’s influence in Nepal.

On the other hand, Bhutan’s border negotiations with China have impacted India’s influence over the Himalayan kingdom’s security affairs. Beijing’s increasing pressure on Thimphu to establish diplomatic ties prompted Modi’s last-minute visit to Bhutan in March 2023, even amid heightened election campaigning in India. Therefore, fixing the loose ends with Bhutan will be crucial in ensuring India’s security concerns in the Himalayas.

By engaging with its maritime neighbors, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Bangladesh, Modi is clearly setting India’s foreign policy priorities in the next five years. The Indian Ocean, a vital artery of global maritime trade with critical sea lanes of communication, is central to this strategy. 

Military dominance in this region is key to achieving regional supremacy as well as economic security. In recent years, China has aggressively sought to increase its presence, threatening India’s traditional dominance. These nations are pivotal to the SAGAR initiative, which aims to ensure the Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace and prosperity, free from hegemonic pressures. 

In Sri Lanka, India has made quite a comeback as it extended economic assistance of $4.4 billion during the island nation’s worst financial crisis. Also, with the pro-China Rajapaksa regime gone, India has found some warmth and welcome under President Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, Beijing still remains strong with its control of Hambantota Port, which India suspects is being used by China for dual purposes, including monitoring India’s naval activities in the Indian Ocean. 

On the other hand, the Maldives under President Mohamed Muizzu has been a security challenge to India. Muizzu has been open about his pro-China foreign policy and visited Beijing soon after taking the oath of office. Muizzu’s astounding victory in the 2023 presidential elections was primarily premised on his “India out” campaign. Muizzu continues with his anti-India stance, including a forced exit of Indian security personnel from the Maldives. 

By inviting Muizzu to the inauguration, Modi is making persistent diplomatic efforts and refusing to concede influence. India aims to recalibrate its ties, ensuring that the Maldives remains an integral part of the regional security architecture despite its leaning toward China. 

Apart from the China threat, the potential for Islamic radicalization in the island state has put India on alert, considering sea routes were used in 2008 by Pakistani Islamic terrorists to launch the worst terror attack in Mumbai. 

Bangladesh, Mauritius, and Seychelles are equally crucial to India’s SAGAR vision. Strengthening ties with Bangladesh, for instance, is vital not only for enhancing bilateral trade and energy cooperation but also for managing shared river waters and countering cross-border terrorism. 

With Mauritius, India’s infrastructure and maritime cooperation investments are vital to securing critical sea lanes and fostering economic growth. In Seychelles, India’s strategic partnerships, such as developing naval facilities on Assumption Island, are essential for enhancing maritime security and monitoring crucial shipping routes. Modi 3.0 will look to continue the momentum and enhance cooperation. 

While India, through minilateral groupings like the Quad, collaborates with like-minded powers – the United States, Japan, and Australia – it needs independent strategies to address the looming China threat in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the Indian Ocean. Whether one likes it or not, the Quad lacks an all-China focus, and each member avoids annoying China. 

A Quad leaders’ summit has yet to materialize, despite India’s proposal to hold it in Delhi in January 2024. Therefore, India must prepare itself for any future challenges in the Indian Ocean. If Trump returns to the White House at the end of this year, the Quad could face a potential “defunct” status, as a second Trump term might lead to the U.S. further withdrawing from international commitments and regional institutions.

To conclude, while Modi 3.0 has prioritized strengthening ties with Himalayan and maritime neighbors, the success of the “Neighborhood First” and SAGAR initiatives will largely depend on reciprocal responses from these nations. Despite mixed reactions from neighbors and ongoing unresolved issues with Pakistan, these initiatives highlight both the potential and limitations of India’s regional policies. Continued diplomatic efforts and cooperation will be essential for realizing the full potential of these strategic priorities.

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