Externalising internal politics, internalising external policies

Contextualisation requires recalling Dhaka’s cancellation of Minister Momen’s Delhi visit at the height of the ‘CAA protests’ across India, with Shah’s ministry and his utterances in focus.

N Sathiya Moorthy 25 April 2021

Coming as it did, not long after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation as the chief guest in the golden jubilee celebrations of ‘Bangladesh Liberation’, Shah’s latest comments seem to have brought new pressures on Hasina’s ruling Awami League when no great domestic political concerns exist for her government.

India-focussed: Bangladesh is not the only neighbourhood nation where India-relations is a major issue in domestic politics and periodic elections. The importance of India in these nations derives not from the prevailing context of bilateral ties but more in the immediate relevance to other election issues.

Among neighbours, Sri Lanka is the only country where India is not an election issue. Instead, it is a pertinent and near-permanent political issue of all times. On the reverse, there is a perception that Sri Lanka is a politico-electoral issue in Tamil Nadu, influencing governments in Delhi. This construct continues to remain even though Sri Lanka has never ever been an election issue in Tamil Nadu, though it is a live political issue for decades.

India is also a politico-election issue in the Himalayan nation of Nepal, even before it became a Republic, and in Bhutan after it embraced constitutional democracy. In both cases, some inexplicable and indefensible decisions of the Indian government have strained relations, down to the voter-level. Subsequent damage-control efforts have worked, but only so much.

Anyway, memories of the Indian decision to blockade movement of goods to Nepal twice in four decades, and cutting down petroleum- product supplies to Bhutan, not very long ago, lingers in the minds of every citizen in the two countries. India-friendly regimes, parties and leaders have suffered. This has impacted bilateral relations and other aspects of India’s foreign and security policy negatively, with the present generation inspiring their future generations.

Then, there is the tiny archipelago-nation Maldives, where, unlike the common Sri Lankan ocean-neighbour, India remains as much an election issue as it is a political issue. It’s ‘hyper-nationalism’ in Maldives which prides itself as the only one in South Asia that was not colonised by a European power. In Maldives today, ‘hyper-nationalism’ sustains itself as a socio-political concern and more so as an eternal poll issue.

Pakistan’s plight: There is a lesson in this for all nations, starting with India. There is even more for them all to learn from the other South Asian nation, Pakistan. Since Partition and Independence, Pakistan has made India the raison d’etre for its existence –- and by extension, its continuance as a nation-state. To cut the long story short, no political party, leadership or military establishment can afford to find permanent solutions to problems with India, as they view it as the beginning of the end of the ‘Idea of Pakistan’.

There are lessons that India needs to learn from Pakistan, but in the larger neighbourhood context, too.  More the 21st century Indians, both locals and NRIs, propagate the greatness of ancient India, greater are the chances of the world recalling India’s very own ‘unity in diversity’ and its acceptance as the ‘moral power-house’ of the times. This image does not jell with their perception of India as an ‘emerging super-power’ in the present-day context, as it never ever was one, or aspired to be one.

India will do better if it re-packaged itself for what it has been, and not what it ought to have been. This is one aspect of ancient India that can be packaged for the Neighbourhood, but without hard-selling ‘cultural similarities’ and the like.  If the other side is grateful to India for their own past, we should be graceful about it.

Externalising internal politics, and internalising external policies can prove dangerous for India as only Pakistan has taught us. We need to learn this lesson quick and fast. Amit Shah’s references to Bangladesh, whether that country is named or not, has to be read and understood in this context.

The article was originally published in the New Indian Express.


(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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