The choice of Maldives and Sri Lanka as the first set of destinations for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit soon after assuming office for a second term demonstrates India’s commitment to the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy in terms of international engagement. Bilateral relations between India and Maldives suffered a setback last year following imposition of emergency and throttling of democracy in the picturesque island nation. But, with the latest visit, Modi has taken a step forward to iron out past differences and improve relations between the two countries. His visit to these two countries also shows the importance that New Delhi attaches to the security and growth for all in the region. The challenge before Modi in his second term is to reset the dynamics in the immediate neighbourhood and strengthen ties with all countries in the region, especially in the face of growing territorial ambitions of China. The Indo-Sri Lanka relations also witnessed several ups and downs, accentuated by the internal turmoil in the island nation. There is a need to focus on the commonalities of interests and work towards strengthening bilateral ties rather than getting bogged down by divergence in views. The two countries have pledged to work jointly to tackle the menace of terrorism. In 2014, Modi had invited South Asian heads of state to his inauguration, signalling the importance New Delhi gives to its immediate neighbourhood. This time round, Modi invited the leaders of Bimstec—an economic grouping straddling South and Southeast Asia — to his inauguration.
The major challenge before New Delhi is to see that the smaller Indian Ocean nations don’t fall prey to the designs of the terrorist groups being nurtured by Pakistan. It needs to craft the foreign policy in such a way that both Male and Colombo are on board in thwarting the emerging threat of Islamic terrorism. The April 21 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka came as an ominous signal that the Islamic State is looking for new venues to strike as its own West Asian footprint shrinks. The horrific terror attack was as much a wake-up call for Sri Lanka as it was for India. There is a greater need now than ever before to deepen the ties with two key neighbours as they remain critical to India’s strategic calculus. India cannot afford to allow Chinese influence to grow in its backyard nor can it let Pakistan’s terror machine hold sway in the region. It is here that the expertise of the Ajit Doval-Jaishankar combination must come into play while crafting a suitable strategy to tackle the two most potent adversaries — Islamabad and Beijing. The challenges for Modi 2.0 on the foreign policy front are now far more complex and tricky.