Within South Asia, Modi government framed a Neighbourhood First policy to signal India’s commitment to regional connectivity. From a policy of strategic insulation and neglect during much of the Cold War, and a reluctant embrace of regionalism thereafter, India’s regional policy has now shifted irreversibly towards strengthening cross-border relations.
An Indian connectivity strategy must be informed by new research, knowledge, and data on neighbouring countries and specific sectors. This will require investment in regional and cross-border studies. The strategy will have to be implemented in coordination with new stakeholders, including sectoral ministries (e.g. power or shipping), state governments, and political parties (e.g. in Uttar Pradesh for Nepal, or Mizoram for Myanmar), private sector interests (infrastructure companies and industrial lobbies), civil society representatives (e.g. universities or environmental activists), and also multilateral organisations (e.g. the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or ADB).
India will have to focus on specific areas and projects that enhance its comparative advantage. Rather than blind competition with China on financing hard infrastructure projects, for example, Delhi should invest relatively more on the soft dimensions of connectivity, including capacity building.
India will also require economic openness, beyond all the investment in cross-border infrastructure. Ports, roads, railways, and airports will be useless barriers to trade and other forms of mobility persist.
India will have to consider the political, economic and cultural sensitivities of neighbouring countries. Regional connectivity may seem like a consensual and logical proposition to Delhi, but this desirability is not always shared in other capitals that are worried about relying on India and thus keener to connect beyond the region, especially with China.
Finally, India’s approach should refrain from excessive emphasis on cultural unity or alikeness in the region. In the cautionary observation of I. P. Khosla, a senior Indian diplomat who served across South Asia, “India’s neighbours find it difficult to endorse proposals that could in any sense hint at the recreation of past unity.”