New Delhi: Neighbourhood policy is a key contributor to a country’s rise. A country could take along its neighbours in its rise or make enemies of them like China with its expansionist claims on the East and South China Seas. Early in Pax Britannica, Britain realized the value of balance-of-power apropos its quarrelsome continental neighbours and allies. It intervened only when it became necessary to maintain peace with minimal land forces while concentrating on seapower that brought imperial and colonial benefits. But Britain was blessed as an island nation and could count on men with great political, military and financial skills and acuity.

The United States on the road to becoming a great power also exploited the European troubles to expand its hold on the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine was not only a statement of intent but enforced in such wars as the one against the Spanish Empire in the late nineteenth century. Growing American naval power and its decisive role in the First World War necessitated a check on a naval race in the neighbourhood extending to Japan which prompted the Washington Naval Treaty. The United States’ periodical bouts of isolationism and its own anti-colonial struggle for independence provoked relatively less fears about its rise in the neighbourhood than compared to, say, Japan which with its wars and colonial conquests consequent to the Meiji Restoration became dreaded in the region.

Not all the great powers of modern history are being considered in this analysis with respect to their neighbourhood policies but only those with some present relevance to India. Otto von Bismarck’s diplomacy had some great and high points which Kaiser Wilhelm II could not appreciate and assimilate and lead the country into the Great War. France’s recovery from the Napoleonic Wars in the sense of re-establishing leadership in the continent was never possible till Imperial Germany grew in power and Britain had obliged and entangled most everyone with the sharp practise of balance-of-power strategies. The Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905 while shocking was foreseen from how backward the country had become under the Tsar although the soldiering was next to none. It would take another thirty-five years for a Russia that was Sovietized to reclaim its glory in the terrible conditions of the Eastern Front against the redoubtable Wehrmacht.

The broad lesson from modern history is to not make neighbourhood blunders as Japan and Germany did that directly counter rise; not to so collapse in shambles as Russia in 1905 that its future promise was forfeited for decades and its greatness called to question; but to manage the immediate environment with intelligence, patience and a long-term plan in the manner that the United States did and Britain before. Indian neighbourhood strategies may differ from theirs in nature or detail, in geostrategic particularities, and in scope and funding, but that is only to be expected. The necessity of neighbourhood strategizing cannot be argued in any circumstance.

Neighbourhood policy was neglected in the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance government and tended to be emotionally loaded during the prime ministry of A. B. Vajpayee. It all rested, so to speak, on the shaky sentimentalism of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” and India-Pakistan “balle-balle” whose roots go back to the middle of the last century. The present government is approaching the issue with a mixture of hard and soft power and it is important that it develops and puts in place beforehand a grand strategy for the neighbourhood.

A grand strategy has obvious advantages over piecemeal action. It weighs the importance and significance of every constituent entity and factor and assigns a place for them in the overall strategy. This assists to commit the necessary investments which may take one or more forms including political, economic, military, financial, commercial, technological, cultural and spiritual. A good neighbourhood strategy has to be built on core political objectives because this gives impetus and direction to whatever follows.

India has been negligent in this fundament in the past. For example, the political objectives for the Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s intervention in Sri Lanka were weak and ill-defined if they existed. A well-thought-out and robustly-conceived grand strategy such as balance-of-power or “containment” is defined by its political rigour and coherence. This internal coherence of strategy increases the chances of success while being at the same time thoroughly realistic about future setbacks. In the nature of things, a grand Indian neighbourhood strategy would have to go beyond the imperative to neutralize China in South Asia and the Indian Ocean; it would have to assist India’s rise in a sustained and meaningful way.

Now and then, the media reveals some plans of the Narendra Modi government in respect to neighbourhood management. Not being privy to the full plan, it is presumptuous to comment on the bits and pieces that make their way into the papers. Knowing a little of how Prime Minister Modi approaches policy matters, he will surely not adopt the piecemeal method. Nor will he obsess about China to the exclusion of other threats and become unmindful of opportunities.

Nevertheless, broadly speaking, India would need to co-opt its neighbours in its rise. India must become the common thread for the development, growth and prosperity of the region. India should be indispensible for South Asia much in the manner that the United States became for the Euro-centric world when it replaced Britain as the foremost great power in the nineteenth century.

Except for the size and quality of the armed forces, a deficiency repaired in the twentieth century in the two world wars and after, the United States led in everything else from food and steel production to industrialization, energy consumption, the manufacture of military hardware, and so forth. It was launching frigates at astonishing speeds. It induced a dependency on the world for its economic and productive prowess. This must be India’s aim for its neighbours and the wider world. It must never stint on its ambitions. With diligence and dedication, the rest will follow.

Editor’s Note: A Happy Holi to all our readers.