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South Asian leaders in swearing-in ceremony: India’s neighborhood first policy or a formality?

Experts point out stark contradictions between Modi’s professed policy of neighborhood first and the way he actually treats his neighboring countries.

Photo courtesy: Reuters

Kathmandu: The leader of the coalition led by Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi is taking oath of office for the third consecutive term this evening.  India has invited heads of state and heads of government from South Asian countries to take part in the grand event taking place in New Delhi.

According to the NDTV report, President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, President of the Maldives, Dr Mohamed Muizzu, Vice-President of Seychelles, Mr Ahmed Afif, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay are participating in the event.

Nepal’s Prime Minister Prachanda is leading a delegation to New Delhi to take part in the same event.

Inviting foreign leaders to the swearing in ceremony has been a signature policy of Modi since his first term in 2014. This is also projected as a goodwill gesture of the BJP leader toward the neighboring countries under India’s ‘neighborhood first policy’ which, in principle, attaches deserved importance to India’s engagement with neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Nepali Prime Ministers have participated in the swearing in of Modi from his first term in 2014. In 2014 the then prime minister Sushil Koirala participated in the event, KP Oli participated in the 2019 swearing in ceremony and Pushpa Kamal Dahal is participating now.

However, India does not appear to have lived up to the true ideals of cooperation under neighborhood first policy, especially vis-à-vis Nepal, all the time.

Modi visited Nepal in 2014 after taking office for the first time and he was given a hero’s  welcome back then. During the April 2015 earthquakes, India was among the first responders to help in Nepal’s rescue and relief efforts.  But when the country promulgated the constitution in September, 2015, India expressed its displeasure by blockading Nepal, which depends on India for trade, including trade with third countries. 

So what should Nepal make out  of this practice of inviting leaders from neighboring countries to the swearing-in ceremony under Modi’s neighborhood first policy?

Experts point to contradictions between the Indian PM’s policy and actions, when it comes to treating neighboring countries as sovereign equals. 

“To me this idea of inviting leaders from neighboring countries in swearing in ceremony appears like nothing more than Modi’s strategy of asserting superiority with the neighbors.  It is like a feudal lord in a village inviting the poor to his family functions to show off how important and powerful he is,” said Baburam Bishwakarma, who is the author of the book Bhurajnitiko Bhar (“The Burden of Geopolitics”). 

According to him there are contradictions between what Modi professes under the neighborhood first policy and what he actually practices. “If it is indeed part of the neighborhood first policy, why does India not invite China, which is its largest neighbor? Or why does a Chinese PM not participate in such an event? Likewise, how about Pakistan? Pakistan is also a neighbor of India?”, he questioned.

“Why does it have to be the political leaders from poor, weak and dependent countries?”

Bishwakarma sees the practice as a strategy of Modi to show his influence and send a message to the world that he is the leader in South Asia. “This is also a tactic to show to the world that India’s dominance in its neighborhood is unquestionable.”

Take the cases of the BRICS 2023 summit and G-20 summit 2023, two of the major events India held recently. Nepal could have been invited to these events as a guest but Nepal was visibly ignored, he further said. 

“Therefore, I don’t see any relevance and meaning of this pump and show and Nepali leaders participating in it with excitement.”

Chandra Shekhar Adhikari, editor of Himal Press, who writes on foreign affairs, has similar views.

“Inviting leaders from neighboring countries in swearing-in can be seen as a good gesture of India to the neighboring countries in a real sense only if what Modi professes as neighborhood first policy and what he practices with the neighbors actually match,” said Adhikari. “In reality, there are contradictions.” 

According to him, there is a tendency in Modi to show that he really cares about Nepal but when it comes to issues that actually serve the interests of Nepal he makes his bureaucrats deal toughly with Nepal. “Take the example of the 2015 blockade which India imposed on Nepal because certain provisions in Nepali constitution were not seen to be in line with India’s interests,” Adhikari said. 

According to him, there is a stark contradiction between policy and practice in India’s relations with neighbors. “China is India’s neighbor, like Nepal is but China has never been invited to a swearing-in ceremony. Where does neighborhood first policy fit in this?”

According to him, such contradictions create gaps between policies and practices. “As the world’s largest democracy and South Asia’s largest economy, India’s prestige would be enhanced if it treated all of its neighbors equally,” he said.