Diplomacy Politics

Parliament panel questions Centre on ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy

MEA consultative committee meeting

All grilled: Sushma Swaraj, M.J. Akbar and S. Jaishankar attended the meeting on December 21.

NEW DELHI: Despite the recent Maldives-China Free Trade Agreement and moves by the Yameen government favouring Chinese investment, the Modi government says it remains firmly committed to its “Neighbours First” policy and has bolstered defence cooperation with Male in the past year.

Sources familiar with the proceedings of the Consultative Committee of the Parliament on External Affairs which met on December 21 said that several members of Parliament from the Congress, NCP, the Left parties pointed out that India’s ties with several South Asian neighbours faced challenges, with particular mentions of Maldives and Nepal.

Seeking an explanation from the government on the situation in the Maldives, a senior member of Parliament supposedly asked, “Why is India unable to address concerns of an island nation whose size is equal to that of [the Delhi neighbourhood of] Maharani Bagh?”

The question created ripples in the meeting of the Consultative Committee which examined ties with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar and Afghanistan. The meeting was attended by D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Dr Karan Singh, Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor of the Congress and Dr Subramanian Swamy of the BJP, among others.

In its response, the Ministry of External Affairs, represented by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Minister of State M.J. Akbar, and all secretaries including Foreign Secretary Dr S. Jaishankar, said that India’s commitment to the Maldives is “serious” and relations were “close, cordial and multi-dimensional.”

“India has always been there for the Maldives and will continue our commitment to be the “first” friend,” said the MEA, which also acknowledged that the 2015 visit to the Maldives by Prime Minister Narendra Modi “was cancelled at the last minute due to political developments in the Maldives.”

India’s ties with the Maldives has turned cold since the first week of December when Male signed a Free Trade Agreement with China after rushing it through parliament. However, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom during the weekend tried to address India’s concerns and said that India is Male’s “closest friend and ally” and both sides are also working on an FTA.

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