Inherent limitations to a ‘muscular’ neighbourhood policy

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Desh Deshantar

N Sathiya Moorthy  16 April 2019 

The twin-victories for ‘democratic forces’ in Maldives that New Delhi had supported openly might give some the idea that India should adapt some muscle-flexing in the neighbourhood consistently, even if of the non-military variety. Such a construct comes with certain inherent limitations that some of India’s current ‘allies’ in the Quad may not have to face in their dealings with their neighbours – wherever there are serious domestic issues and strategic concerns.

First and foremost, India’s statements on domestic politics in Maldives came when the government of then President Abdulla Yameen (alone) had made itself unpopular with the local population. This had encouraged/forced the divided political Opposition to come on a common politico-electoral platform. The question is if India would have and could have made such statements if the domestic Maldivian situation was unclear.

Flowing from the question is what if the Maldivian Supreme Court’s directive of 1 February 2018, ordering freedom for jailed but self-exiled MDP boss and former President Mohamed Nasheed, and others, had created a street-situation worse than happened. Would it have helped the larger cause if the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF) and the Maldives Police Service (MPS) had acted ruthlessly against Opposition protestors – or, if they were divided in the middle?

Both had precedents in contemporary Maldives after the nation became a democracy in 2008. A substantial section of the police had participated in the night-long Opposition protest, which led to the hurried and controversial exit of President Nasheed on 7 February 2012. In the riots and arson that hit the nation all across, police stations and jeeps, the latter donated by India were torched, as never before. During the equally controversial May Day rally of 2015, the police and Opposition protestors attacked each other violently – but it all stopped there.

Judicial summersault

The 1 February Supreme Court order last year was followed by President Yameen declaring emergency, arresting two of the five judges who published the ‘unanimous’ order directly on the SC website. Yameen also had more Opposition leaders, including half-brother and ex-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, son Faaris Maumoon, and one-time electoral ally Gasim Ibrahim’s son. They were all arrested on the charge of seeking to ‘buy/influence’ judges and/or legislators.

After the proclamation of the emergency, the residual three-Judge SC Bench reversed the earlier decision, this one again without convincing explanation. The judiciary would do a summersault all over again after the MDP-led four-party alliance candidate Ibrahim Solih defeated Yameen in the 23 September polls. They would reverse most/all decisions taken during the Emergency – again, no questions asked.

President Solih’s MDP and party boss Nasheed have all along promised to ‘reform’ the Maldivian judiciary. It is a huge task, considering the conceptual differences between what is possible and what is needed.  It is even more so to keep all such democratic reforms apolitical in every respect. Otherwise, too, the MDP this time round should be trying to bridge the gap between the government and the party, in terms of perceptions and policies. It is too early to predict which way they all could go.

For third nations, including the larger Indian neighbour, to influence positive changes without selective aberration, is not going to be easy, whether in Maldives or elsewhere. The way, Bhutan, which became a democracy in the same year (2008) as Maldives, and Republican transition in neighbouring Nepal and also the democratic nature of elections in Bangladesh, not to leave out the same in the case of southern Sri Lanka, are all pointers.

Confused priorities

Promoting democracy as a political cause for third nations is one thing, but doing so with an eye on their own geo-strategic priorities is another. This is because by nature democracy does not guarantee that the former would lead to the latter. As India’s experience with Sri Lanka should show, the electoral defeat of the President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 did not automatically lead to any major change in that nation’s ‘China policy’, which was/is of a more serious concern for New Delhi.

Barring the all-important sense of ‘individual freedom’ that was lacking under the Rajapaksa presidency, all institutions of democracy in Sri Lanka have continued to suffer under his successors. Incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have clashed openly almost on all issues, including those of immediate concern to India, and other democratic nations of the West.

Elder brother or ‘Big Brother’?

As former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa often said, “China is a friend and India is a relation… elder sister.” Words did not always translate into action.  In Maldives, after the 5 February emergency proclamation last year, MDP’s Nasheed spoke about the ‘need for India to send troops to restore democracy in the country’. Maldivian social media went further and farther on the theme.

Whether the Yameen government was influenced by such calls, then and earlier, Maldives ‘returned’ the two gift-helicopters and wanted them as also the Indian personnel taken back. That did not however happen, and is unlikely happen now under the Solih presidency. Yet, there are already demands from new and emerging ranks of ‘political conservatives’ that ‘no foreign military presence’ was acceptable. However, some of them do mention continuing the strategic ties (exclusively) with India.

Especially in the post-war Sri Lankan context, western friends of India were talking about New Delhi having to take UN-approved ‘R2P’, or ‘Responsibility to Protect’, initiatives in defence of democracy and human rights in the neighbourhood. Yet, they were the ones who let down India, and very badly so, when New Delhi took the earliest of such initiatives in the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. With Pakistan and a few other nations, including some in the West, occasionally flagging ‘human rights’ and democracy issues in J&K, New Delhi need to be circumspect about the consistency in their approach before embarking on any project of the kind – if at all proposed.

More importantly, India needs to be concerned about neighbourhood reactions, both in the ‘target’ (?) country and the rest before taking up ‘unilateral measures’ of the kind, if any. Most neighbourhood nations are democracies, where ‘imported, template’ models do not always work. New Delhi’s experience with the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord should be an eye-opener, if any was needed. A closer study would show that though the global situation may have changed with the end of the Cold War, but not the ground situation in individual neighbourhood nations.

India also needs to distinguish between ‘muscular’ American interventions of the political variety (Venezuela, now) or the military one (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) and what is sustainable in the South Asian neighbourhood over the medium and long terms. The American exercises, as with the nation’s Cold War attempts, are doomed failures. For decades, the US tried its luck at ‘regime-change’ in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, but could not do it.

Yet, given the relative size of its economy, military and geo-political clout, Washington could still hope to meddle in the neighbourhood as much as in distant lands. The Cold War US attempts in or with Vietnam, Iran and the Philippines in the Asian neighbourhood are relevant lessons for the ‘emerging’ India, to study again.

Anyway, India is not anywhere near the US in terms of inherent or acquired capabilities. It is not even near the erstwhile Soviet Union, which tried jack-booting neighbours and went down with them. China is at flexing muscles on ‘neutral seas’ but on ‘shared borders’ with India, is careful not to escalate tensions to ‘unmanageable levels’. On Venezuela, for instance, extra-regional powers in Russia and China have jumped into the fray, like some or many of them did in Egypt, Lebanon, Chechnya and Venezuela, and left them all in an unholy mess.

India needs to evolve its own neighbourhood policy, where concepts like R2P and ‘muscular’ intervention could only boomerang – with an ever-ready China with better political clout, economic muscle and military prowess is waiting to exploit any anti-India sentiment. 

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