India’s efforts to improve its relations with its South Asian neighbors look to be moving forward under the recently-elected government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The success of a high-level visit by Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh this week marks a crucial milestone in relations between the two states and in the Modi government’s broader campaign for regional cohesion.
Swaraj’s visit to Dhaka yielded several significant concessions on the part of New Delhi, most notably the announcement that Indian visa requirements would be relaxed for Bangladeshi nationals above the age of 65 and below the age of 13. The somewhat surprising offer represents a stark contrast from the rhetoric coming from the Modi camp ahead of his election, including the leader’s explicit vow to deport Bangladeshi immigrants from the country. Indeed the fear that his rise to power would bring about tensions with Bangladesh appeared to be far removed from the diplomatic engagement between New Delhi and Dhaka on Thursday, in which the Indian contingent emphasized Modi’s hope of a new era of “cooperation and connectivity” between the neighbors.
While the overture should not be taken as a conclusive proof that a paradigm shift is underway in India-Bangladesh ties — or that the Modi government has entirely discarded the prerogatives of its Hindu nationalist base — it nonetheless marks a very promising turn of events given the expectations surrounding Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. With a few small exceptions, the diplomatic approach the BJP has taken towards its neighbors since its rise has focused on warming ties with loaded symbolic gestures such as Modi’s unprecedented inaugural invite to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Modi certainly has the political capital behind him to make the bold diplomatic moves his predecessors could not have dreamed of. Thus far,
however, Modi’s boldness has manifested itself more in eyebrow-raising gestures than in serious policy shifts. Nonetheless the Bangladesh visa decision is a good sign that the BJP is ready to expend some of its capital on more meaningful bilateral endeavors.
One of the most defining features of India’s foreign policy over the past decades has been its consistency and continuity despite political changeovers. If any leader were in a position to give this system a jolt, it would be Modi. India only stands to gain by spearheading greater regional cohesion — especially through deepening trade and investment ties with its neighbors. The question remains whether Modi will be able to balance his proven pragmatism on economic development with the nationalistic fervor of his BJP base.