Marked by a history of political divisions, economic differences, and geostrategic divergences, the Indian subcontinent remains deeply divided, with exceptionally low levels of integration. No other regional power is as disconnected from its immediate neighbourhood as India. Recognising this disconnect as a challenge to India’s economic and security interests, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made both intra- and inter-regional connectivity a policy priority in 2014. Speaking on the importance of the Indo-Pacific region at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he emphasised the country’s new strategic imperative. Connectivity is vital. It does more than [just] enhance trade and prosperity. It unites a region. India has been at the crossroads for centuries. We understand the benefits of connectivity. There are many connectivity initiatives in the region. If these have to succeed, we must not only build infrastructure, we must also build bridges of trust.1
Within South Asia, Modi’s 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. Progress has been significant (reviewed ahead), and even unprecedented, including the laying of new pipelines, building electricity networks, upgrading port, rail, and airport infrastructure, and reinvigorating people-to-people exchanges. However, despite such extraordinary progress on various fronts, Delhi’s regional activism and ambition has also been a victim of its own success, exposing implementation deficits. After decades of regional introversion and policy stagnation, new government and private stakeholders struggle to flesh out connectivity on the ground, revealing challenges in coordination and execution.
Most importantly, the impulse for connectivity requires quality data, inputs from different Indian government branches (both at the centre and the states), as well as engagement from the private sector, different domestic constituencies, and even neighbouring countries.
Following an examination of the key drivers of India’s new approach to regional connectivity, the progress made thus far and the challenges faced, the last section of this brief introduces the research agenda for Sambandh. A new initiative at Brookings India, the programme conducts data-driven research to map India’s links with neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Driven by a holistic understanding of connectivity, Sambandh surveys India’s regional integration across economic, environmental, political, security, and sociocultural indicators. The initiative contributes with empirical insights and recommendations for policymakers and other stakeholders invested in reconnecting India with South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
Read the entire Policy Brief here.
Ministry of External Affairs (2018, June 1). Prime Minister’s keynote address at Shangri La Dialogue. Retrieved from https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/29943/Prime+Ministers+Keynote+Address+at+Shangri+La+Dialogue+June+01+2018