NEIGHBOURHOOD FIRST

Govt To Reach Out To Neighbours Through Development Aid And Cricketing Diplomacy

Parul Chandra New Delhi 6 June 2019

A generous mix of cricket, development aid and defence cooperation will be part of India’s diplomatic arsenal in its outreach to the immediate neighbourhood during the Narendra Modi-led government’s second term in office.

The new government on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy—a mantra it enunciated as part of its outreach to the immediate neighbourhood during its first term in office.

While PM Modi is headed for visits to two strategically-located Indian Ocean countries and Sri Lanka on June 8 and 9, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will be headed for yet another important neighbour, Bhutan on the same dates. The visit by the FS is expected to pave the way for the PM’s visit to Bhutan later this year where a new government led by PM Lotay Tshering took over in November last year.

During his first term in office, PM Modi had made Bhutan his first port of call, highlighting its significance for India. This time around, he has chosen Maldives, a country that gave New Delhi many sleepless nights as it dealt with a pro-China President, Abdulla Yameen leading the government in Malé.

Maldives was the only country in the immediate neighbourhood PM Modi did not make a bilateral visit to during his first term. The last full-fledged bilateral visit to Maldives by an Indian PM was by Dr Manmohan Singh in 2011.

He finally went to Maldives for the swearing-in of President Ibrahim Solih in November last year, though it wasn’t a full-fledged bilateral visit. Fortunately for New Delhi, President Solih has not inclined towards China, thus far. Significantly, Gokhale said, “We have made significant progress in the building of our bilateral ties with Maldives since Solih’s election.”

However, Solih is interested in cricket and New Delhi has been seeking to use cricket diplomacy to win hearts in the Indian Ocean archipelago. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters on Thursday that India is examining the possibility of building a cricket stadium in the Maldives by providing a Line of Credit or through other other ways of financial assistance.

The FS also said that that the Maldivians have requested cricket coaching for both men and women players and that India is ready to look into the possibility. The cricket outreach has also seen India already providing cricket kits to Maldives. The country is also keen to see its people train as umpires, score-keepers and has sought India’s help to raise a national cricket team, added Gokhale.

The PM’s visit to Sri Lanka will be the first by a foreign leader to the island nation, after the deadly terror attacks on Easter Sunday (April 21). Gokhale said the state visit is a special gesture aimed at conveying a message of solidarity with the Sri Lankan people during a tragic time.

He is visiting the country with a very clear message of solidarity and signalling our confidence in the Sri Lankan government in overcoming the tragedy, the foreign secretary said.

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