The alacrity with which New Delhi reached out to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa marks a major policy shift towards a more bipartisan approach in the neighbourhood

Three broad elements seem to inform this shift – first, India should not become a contentious issue in the internal politics of its neighbours; second, the relationship should have a distinct institutional character so that business is possible with whichever entity is in power; and third, Indian diplomacy should ensure there is bipartisan support for a healthy relationship with India across the political spectrum.

India had to learn this the hard way in Nepal with PM KP Sharma Oli. Despite various machinations, Oli performed better than expected in 2018 and became the PM for a second time. India had its share of ups and downs in Maldives and Myanmar too. Even in Bangladesh, an air of uncertainty often surrounds New Delhi the moment it appears that the chips are down for Sheikh Hasina.

The core of the problem is that while India has always helped establish democracy in its neighbourhood, it has not always been satisfied with the outcomes. The reason is, perhaps, the tendency to back one or two parties or actors in a particular country. In today’s contested political climate, it has proved counterproductive. So, India has often found itself dragged into the internal political mudslinging of a neighbouring country. It has happened in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bhutan.

Regime or personality-based preferences have to give way to more structural institution-based relationships. Which is why the fact that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar lost no time in flying down to Sri Lanka to meet both Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapksa is the right start at a time when speculation is rife that Lanka has elected a China-friendly regime. This brings us to the other big issue of Chinese competition. In the 1980s and 1990s, China cultivated the military in India’s neighbourhood. It probably felt that the military was, perhaps, the most stable institution. The most pronounced of that effort was the Sino-Pak military axis. But the fact is that even now the defence forces of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have Chinese equipment.

In the past two decades, however, China made an important shift to this approach. It assessed that democracy, in whatever crude form, has become a reality in most South Asian countries barring, maybe, Pakistan. Military leaders were also seeking to come to power through a democratic process. So, it decided to cultivate parties.

Suddenly, there was an option other than India for rival politicians. China was willing to give soft loans, help politicians fulfil their promises in the short-term and build state-of-the-art infrastructure. The downside, of course, is the big debt trap China draws these countries into, as is evident in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Clearly, the issue of domestic political debate in these countries ought to be China and not India from now on, especially given the threat Beijing’s lopsided instruments of aid pose to their economies and livelihood.

In that context, India needs to treat its neighbours as mature states, seeking to build relationships with all domestic stakeholders to underscore the durability of a partnership with India. Here, New Delhi can take a leaf out of its more successful big-power diplomacy in Washington, where both Republican and Democrats now support a strong India partnership.

The government’s Colombo manoeuvre while welcome, will count for much more if it becomes the anchor for a bigger, more meaningful policy transition towards friendly countries in the neighbourhood.