NEW DELHI :
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday took the opportunity of the start of a new year to underline India’s commitment to its neighbourhood in separate phone calls with the leaders of Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives.
A notable omission from Modi’s list was Pakistan, with which India has had difficult ties in recent years. Tensions ran high in 2019, with India launching a pre-emptive aerial attack against a terrorist training camp inside Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. The strike followed a suicide bomber targeting a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama region on 14 February, killing 40 personnel. Tensions again rose in August, when New Delhi removed Article 370 of its Constitution that granted limited autonomy to the erstwhile border state of Jammu and Kashmir. The move signals India’s intent to carry on its neighbourhood diplomacy excluding Pakistan.
Modi “conveyed to the leaders his New Year greetings and good wishes on behalf of the people of India and on his own behalf. He emphasized India’s commitment to ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and the vision of shared peace, security, prosperity and progress for all of India’s friends and partners in the region", a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.
The leaders of Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal were among those invited to Modi’s swearing in on 30 May after the April-May elections last year. It marked a departure from a similar event on 26 May 2014 for Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony, when New Delhi had sent invites to the leaders of seven countries in South Asia, including Pakistan.
Many of the countries, the leaders of which Modi spoke to, are also those where India’s strategic rival China has been making deep inroads—Nepal and Sri Lanka are key cases in point. In the case of Bhutan, China has been trying to woo the tiny Himalayan nation to forge closer ties by opening an embassy there. New Delhi has traditionally looked at South Asia and countries in the region as within its political sphere of influence.
In his conversation with the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Modi “highlighted important achievements of the last year which have led to further consolidation of special ties between India and Bhutan", the statement said. It added that Modi “also emphasized the need to enhance youth exchanges between the two countries. The Prime Minister also mentioned that he was looking forward to forthcoming visit of the King to India".
The recently elected President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, “warmly reciprocated the (New Year) wishes of Prime Minister and expressed confidence that India and Sri Lanka would further enhance their friendly ties in the year 2020. The two leaders reiterated their commitment to closely work together towards this end". Modi also spoke to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and “reiterated India’s commitment to further expand the close and extensive cooperation with Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Rajapaksa reciprocated the wishes warmly and expressed keen desire to further enhance relations between the two countries".
In his call to the President of the Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Modi wished the people of the island nation “success in all their endeavours for development. President Solih warmly reciprocated Prime Minister’s wishes and expressed his keen desire to further deepen and strengthen the ties with India by enhancing the existing bilateral cooperation and exploring newer areas for working together".
Speaking with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Modi congratulated her on being re-elected president of the Awami League party for the next three years. Modi “noted the progress achieved in India-Bangladesh relations in 2019. He also stated that the upcoming birth centenary of Bangbandhu (Father of the Nation of Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina’s father, who was assassinated in 1975) and 50 years of the Liberation of Bangladesh and establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties provided important milestones to further progress of the close India-Bangladesh ties, which is a priority of his government". The call comes after two key Bangladeshi ministers last month cancelled visits to India following protests over India’s Citizenship Amendment Act that aims to give Indian citizenship to minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In his conversation with Nepal’s Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, Modi “expressed his satisfaction at the progress of India-Nepal relations in 2019, with the completion of several projects".