Three years ago, on the back of the election of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, there was a subtle but perceptible change in India’s regional policy. This shift went largely unnoticed in the Delhi media, but had the potential to change the relationship of Southasia’s largest power with the rest of the region. Based on the country’s high economic growth figures, enjoying a cushioned seat in capitals worldwide, while vying for increased say in the United Nations and with an economist prime minister as the head of government, the conservative mandarins at South Block suddenly seemed to become significantly more confident.
First and foremost, New Delhi’s foreign policies gained a notable level of coherence. The vision of a stable neighbourhood being in India’s long-term interest gained acceptance. Shyam Saran and his successor as foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, both appeared to be reasonable liberals, who realised that a burning neighbourhood does little to help access India’s global aspirations. There was likewise hope that India’s dirty-tricks department, the intelligence agencies, would stop playing games that heighten disturbances in Kathmandu, Colombo, Dhaka and Islamabad.
By now, it is evident that Southasia is anything but stable, and is instead facing multiple and escalating crises. It is worth evaluating, after three years of UPA policymaking, what India’s role in Southasia has been. Has the Alliance, and South Block as its implementer, lived up to the promise of working towards a ‘peaceful periphery’, or was this only a feel-good principle meant for consumption by an at-times gullible media?
To give credit where it is due, Indian actions did show that there was a concerted effort to jettison the zero-sum mindset vis-à-vis the neighbours. India pushed the peace process with Pakistan. While it may have dragged its feet on Kashmir, domestic instability within Pakistan is currently the key obstacle to a more cordial bilateral relationship, with the peace process at the moment seeming like an almost forgotten chapter. Even in the unlikely event that involvement is sought, India can do little to help Pakistan deal with its democracy deficit and Islamic militancy of the recent past, made more complicated by US intervention in the country. At best, it can help Pakistanis help themselves by being supportive of the democratisation process and a civilian-military partnership, and by maintaining peace on the Kashmir front.
Nepal has felt the change in South Block’s mindset most directly, and most positively. India went against the rightwing autocrat Gyanendra; New Delhi thought outside of the box and engaged with the Maoists, and helped to engineer the peace process of the last three years. After some missteps during the People’s Movement of April 2006, New Delhi did manage to abandon its ‘twin pillar’ policy, which supported constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy, and withdraw support to the former. The limits to Indian power are seen in the fact that, despite India being keen to make the Constituent Assembly elections happen, it does not have the overwhelming leverage that even some members of Kathmandu’s political elite believe it has. For example, even though that elite is under the misassumption that the Madhes political class marches under Indian orders, it is clear that it marches to its own tune. And so there arises the situation of late February, of elections looking remote despite India wanting them. Ultimately, if Nepal fails to hold elections for the third time on 10 April, and the peace process crumbles, it cannot blame New Delhi, for the fault will lie within.
It is in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma where the Indian role has been opaque, and more inconsistent with regards to democratic principles. New Delhi has limited leverage in influencing domestic developments in Bangladesh, which is made worse by the viscerally anti-Indian sentiment among Dhaka’s elite. But India’s nod and support to last year’s coup, and its silence when the entire structure of liberal democracy was being dismantled, is not only morally untenable but strategically unwise, for Dhaka’s is not a sustainable regime. The two ladies may have respectively misused democratic power when they held it, but they remain powerful and with control over strong party structures. A more intense conflict is inevitable in Dhaka: instability will only rise, at which point New Delhi will be seen as having not performed its role fairly. Bangladesh is an example of India’s ginger involvement – and a failure even at that.
There are domestic political difficulties vis-à-vis the Sri Lanka policy. Domestic Tamil politics means that New Delhi cannot blindly support the Sinhala-dominated Colombo government. On the other hand, the LTTE’s track record and the bitter memory of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination continue undiminished. But all sides in Sri Lanka know that a creative role by India can help. From a distance, New Delhi seems to have done little to prevent the resumption of all-out war in its southern neighbour. But should it not have used the influence it has through multiple actors – Tamil politicians, former intelligence agents with links to LTTE, political relationships with Sinhala leaders – to step up the momentum for the tottering peace process? India should be proactive when the matter is one of war versus peace, and use what leverage it has, rather than focus on the day-to-day management of a bilateral relationship.
In general the less said about New Delhi-Rangoon relations the better. Like Beijing, it has been one of the junta’s most crucial and uncritical supporters, not only in armaments but on the decisive international stage. Although recent hectoring by the United Nations appears to have swayed New Delhi’s Burma policy somewhat, it will take a long time for Indian policymakers to live down their resounding silence during the public uprisings on the streets of Burma last fall.
India is the regional power, and it makes sense to recognise that role. But the paradox of New Delhi saying that it wants a stable neighbourhood, even while it has to live with continued chaos all around, is striking. It also emphasises the tough balancing act that India has to strive for: of not being seen to intervene in affairs of other countries while, at the same time, using its might to create conditions for peace. The last few years have shown some noble intentions, but little by way of success. Whether India is committed to its stated regional vision, and whether it succeeds in translating the policy on the ground, will be the central challenge of the country’s foreign-policy establishment in the coming years.