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Putting SAGAR in Operation Under Modi 3.0

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Putting SAGAR in Operation Under Modi 3.0

New Delhi pressed the refresh button by inviting the leaders from the island countries of the Indian Ocean region to Modi’s swearing-in.

Putting SAGAR in Operation Under Modi 3.0

From left, Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, President of Maldives, Dr Mohamed Muizzu, Indian Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, Indian President Droupadi Murmu, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Vice-President of Seychelles, Ahmed Afif, Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth and Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay pose for a group photograph after the swearing in ceremony of Modi, at the Indian presidential palace in New Delhi, India, Sunday, June 9, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Inviting the heads of state of Mauritius and Seychelles, in addition to India’s South Asian neighbors, to the swearing-in ceremony this week of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he took office for a third term sent a significant signal. The guest list sent a message about not only extending India’s “Neighborhood First” policy and blending it with the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative, but also underscoring the importance of island states for India as it swims more profoundly into the Indo-Pacific region. Finally, the invitations illustrated their placement in New Delhi’s Global South approach. Such a first-of-its-kind move has set the ball rolling in the right direction; however, the journey ahead will have to maneuver through anticipated bumps and jolts. China, whose role has been largely envisioned and analyzed from a military point of view has gone much ahead of this in the island states of the Indian Ocean. 

All About Strategic Signaling 

The SAGAR initiative was launched in 2015 during Modi’s first term amid an island tour to Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka, the same countries that were also invited to attend his third initiation ceremony. However, in his first two terms, the momentum and substance in the effort were missing and somewhat lost as New Delhi busied itself engaging with the West and managing the rest. By bringing the heads of state of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles together on June 9 India defied long-standing claims of excessive focus on territorial subjects and issues. India is ready to balance both its maritime and territorial neighbors. Further, at the state banquet hosted by the president of India for guests, Ranil Wickremesinghe, president of Sri Lanka, was sitting on Modi’s right, and the Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu at his left–this positioning demonstrated a maturing of New Delhi’s diplomacy in its neighborhood. 

This was, after all, Muizzu’s first trip to India after being elected as the president of Maldives in November 2023 largely on the back of an anti-India campaign. Consequentially, Maldives’ ties with India are going through a rough patch as Male has been making repeated attempts to limit its engagement and involvement with India, and simultaneously engaging with China. On the other hand, with Wickremesinghe and Sri Lanka, India will continue to work with the Sri Lankans to restructure the country’s economy after it fell like a deck of cards by consuming large Chinese loans. Lastly, it also cleared the smoke that while India would continue to work with some countries about whom it cares and vice-versa, some others will continue to remain at arm’s length. The invitation to Mauritius could be read as a gesture of gratitude for the development of the Agalega island with an airstrip and jetty which will allow India to expand its operational outreach and keep an eagle’s eye on the activities in its neighborhood. Simultaneously, it is also a strategic signal to Seychelles to reconsider the Assumption Island project that has stalled for some years now.  

Why do Islands Matter to India? 

As the Indian Ocean gains more and more importance in the strategic mapping and making of various countries, islands will continue to gain significance for geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic reasons in the vast maritime expanse. Their geographical location along the long distances of the ocean, and astride the chokepoints makes them important platforms to project power and control trade. Though the peak of the ideological confrontation and contestation between the U.S. and the USSR was witnessed in Europe and Southeast Asia, the maritime belt between these two regions — the Indian Ocean — cannot be discounted. Victoria, the capital of Seychelles was caught in a tussle between the two superpowers, each of whom wanted to use the island to project power. In fact, the U.S. built a satellite tracking station and also a surveillance platform to conduct patrols in the region. 

What further amplifies the importance of islands is the presence of hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals in the surrounding waters. Partnering and strengthening ties with the island countries provides an additional opportunity for India to deal with several emerging military and non-military challenges, and further reinforce its role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. India also shares historical ties with island countries like Mauritius and Seychelles. The former is known as “Mini India,” as nearly 70 percent of the people are of Indian origin, and in the latter Indians were the first few people who inhabited the island as plantation workers. India has been the foundational developmental partner of many Indian Ocean islands since their independence. To continue accommodating their concerns, India has provided platforms like the Voice of the Global South Summit, which reflects New Delhi’s intent to work as a bridge between the countries of the Global North and South. 

India has been engaging with the island nations of the Indian Ocean diplomatically, economically, militarily, institutionally, and culturally. But the need was for larger signs, bigger symbols, and more substance which Modi 3.0 seems to fulfill. However, the road ahead is not easy. As the Indian Ocean once again emerges as a pivot point for major players, India’s effectiveness as a partner will be questioned and analyzed deeply. New Delhi must relook and revisit the region from a different lens. The India-China contestation and crisis in South Asia so far has largely been envisioned and analyzed from a continental viewpoint, thereby limiting it to the long-standing border dispute between the two countries. However, the growing economic profile and the consequential growth in diplomatic and institutional roles at the turn of the century necessitated both continental neighbors to seek to command the seas and secure their interests. In this aspect, the island states have surfaced as grounds where India-China competition is simmering. 

Bringing the Past and the Present Together 

China also sent laborers as plantation workers to the island countries of Mauritius, Seychelles, and Madagascar under colonial rule, as India did. However, there is a difference between the old and the new Chinese migrants, those who came after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and more so after the reform period of the 1970s. The new Chinese are widely perceived to go to the islands in search of profit. They often toe the line of the state and have been accused of flooding the market with Chinese goods as well as attempting to gain lucrative oil and mining concessions. These efforts were intensified under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under which several big and small connectivity and infrastructure projects are executed. Beijing has a strong institutional presence and engages with the island states under the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, and simultaneously under the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum. Today it is the only country that has diplomatic missions in all the island countries of the Indian Ocean.

India needs to deal with this simmering competition in its strategic backyard. It is rightly said that well-begun is half done. New Delhi pressed the refresh button by inviting the leaders from the island countries of the Indian Ocean region to Modi’s swearing-in, but it remains to be seen how New Delhi under Modi 3.0 will lead and take it forward from here.