India needs to recalibrate its policies in South Asia

India needs to recalibrate its policies in South Asia

The Nepali government’s allegation that India was plotting a regime-change in the young Himalayan Republic should make both nations think. Even as India has refuted the allegation, as in the normal, obvious course it would have, the Nepali envoy, who has ostensibly been recalled from Delhi, has contested it all, though from a personal angle – promising to fight his government politically, nearer home.

This is not the first time that Nepal has levelled such allegations against the larger, bigger Indian neighbour in recent months. First, it was over the Madhesi protests on the new constitution. Later, Nepal minced no words when India joined the EU at Brussels in commenting on the process and outcome of the 2015 Nepalese constitution making business. Nor is Nepal the only country that has blamed India for ‘meddling’ in its internal affairs. Having lost power in January 2015 presidential polls, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa did charge Indian intelligence agencies allegedly conniving with western counterparts to have him defeated.

It did not matter to Rajapaksa that only weeks ahead, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi possibly broke diplomatic precedents at the SAARC Summit, to wish him well in the elections. While today, India runs a smoother course with the incumbent coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, however, inheriting issues on Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics, China relations, and economic ties with India remain, there still remains scope for mistrust, and consequently, for allegations to be levelled against the country. Similar was the case with Bhutan, where allegations of ‘LPG blockade’ ahead of parliamentary polls in the Himalayan Kingdom had managed to convince many about the ‘involvement’ of India in what was essentially a domestic, internal matter of this landlocked nation.

In another of India’s neighbourhood nations, Maldives, India has seemingly sorted out bilateral issues and concerns to a greater or lesser extent in recent months. Earlier, it was seen as sending out confusing signals on Maldives’ domestic politics. Among the remaining SAARC nations, India’s ties with Bangladesh are at an even keel. It will remain so, whoever rules India. The same cannot be said of change of leadership in the other country. India-Pakistan relations are a stand-alone affair, but Afghanistan gets caught up in the process, even otherwise.

India’s core concerns in the neighbourhood pertain to extra-regional powers’ geo-strategic influence and future involvement in what has been acknowledged as India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’. The Indian policy-maker and strategic community are thinking and talking mostly about China – and rightly so – but it should apply equally to other global players, especially the US as the sole super-power, post-Cold War.

All this goes beyond China’s claims that the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean. As a stand-alone issue, it would then flow that South China Sea and East China Sea are also not ‘China’s seas’. The recent US statement of challenging the maritime rights of 13 nations, including India and China, has to be read in context. As Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said at the Galle Dialogue-2015, the US is already the ‘elephant in the room’ in the Indian Ocean context. At a New Delhi seminar earlier this year, many veteran and incumbent neighbourhood leaders told India (without naming her) that “China is an opportunity, not a challenge”. The reference to the US is in geo-strategic context, and that to China, more in an economic sense, but not exclusively so. There are other extra-regional players, existing, emerging or re-emerging. Including the US, they are all engaged with and in India’s neighbourhood as much as China.

There are also non-state actors, one replacing the other but none extinguishing ‘em all. Be they state or non-state actors, India’s perception and the relative geo-strategic context alone has changed, not the intent of the other(s). In context, India’s perception of individual neighbours and the neighbourhood as a whole also needs a periodic re-look.

Unlike most other regional and global powers, India is in unenviable environs. Incomparable size(s) has led to an attitudinal incompatibility. They have refused to read India in contemporary context. The world, and the sub-continent, have all come a long way since, particularly post-Cold War.  Yet, the sub-continent has not changed. Change of governments in India and with that individual leadership approaches have still ensured that the nation’s neighbourhood policy draws from a consensual past. In the case of neighbours, the ‘attitudinal freeze’ has stayed on with regime-change and systems-change in the form of government.

The attitudinal-freeze has also contributed to neighbours contriving conventional and not-so-conventional arguments to unilaterally conclude that India is intervening in their internal affairs. They do not want to accept that it’s in India’s interest that those nations manage their internal affairs internally, and ensure political peace and stability. That alone would contribute to strategic equilibrium in the Indian neighbourhood, not otherwise.

The question remains: Who is afraid of India? Or, who respects India, from a purely neighbourhood policy context? Or, should anyone at all be afraid of India? In the post-Cold War context, no nation or peoples is afraid of any other. They are ready to go down fighting rather than yielding.

India is prepared for conventional adversaries not being ‘afraid’ of India. It hopes for fuller understanding from neighbour, and respect from (western) friends. The first one is manageable, the second is achievable still, but the third one is unacceptable – but it keeps repeating itself all the same.

PM Modi may have inherited a policy-paralysis of a kind on the neighbourhood as with the other aspects of governance. ‘Continuity with change’ as an aspect of post-Cold War Indian policy-formulation got stuck. He began well, by thinking on his feet and at once inviting SAARC neighbours and Mauritius for his Inauguration. He has also visited most countries in the region, barring Maldives.

Before Modi, his predecessors had done so, barring a strange exception in the case of Sri Lanka. PM Vajpayee, heading Modi’s BJP-led government in his time, had not corrected the anomaly either. Yet, Modi’s neighbourhood diplomacy has been successful more on the economic front than political front.

Justifications apart, the prevalent politics in Bhutan and Maldives were the creation of the predecessor Manmohan Singh government. But Nepal and Sri Lanka have been the contribution of his government. On Bangladesh, he has built on the Singh legacy – mostly owing to the continuance of India-friendly Sheikh Hasina leadership in that country.

India’s neighbourhood policy has remained a complex matrix. It had evolved and frozen, post-Independence, particularly in the context of China War first, and the Bangladesh War, later on. Post-Cold War expectations derived more from the near-coincidence of economic reforms than global and regional real-politik. Sections of the Indian strategic community expected India to jump the Indian Ocean onto the Atlantic and the Pacific, put together.

It did not happen, and better sense has prevailed. The more nations around India become democracies greater are the internal influences and pressures on their India policy. India has felt it in the case of Pakistan and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Independent of political leaderships in office, India’s decisions on requests for military participation in Iraq and Afghanistan too has been influenced by the ‘domestic factor’ as well.

India cannot any more seek to ‘manage’ diplomatic relations at the state level without a fuller understanding of the democracy dynamic, internally. A bottom-up approach in understanding domestic dynamics and dilemmas of and in individual nations could be a starting point for India to begin afresh on the neighbourhood slate. It involves a lot of hard work, particularly so at the political-level.

Like his predecessors, PM Modi too has been looking over the neighbourhood to distant lands, especially when consolidation in the immediate region should evince parallel interest and constant engagement. He needs to ask himself why an Indian PM should be visiting the US every year (barring the UNGA) or other nations while not finding time and inclination to engage neighbourhood nations, likewise if not more.




[This article is published with the consent of the author. It also appeared in South Asia Monitor.]

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