If there is one word that has been used endlessly to describe India’s foreign policy, it is ‘continuity’. For almost four decades during the Cold War, the official discourse in India centred around non-alignment while the policy, in practice, maintained a distinct pro-Soviet tilt. For an even longer period, South Block had a clear framework with which to deal with the immediate neighbourhood – Southasia was India’s business and other countries, including the big powers, were expected to keep their hands off the region. It was, as a commentator once remarked, India’s Monroe doctrine – at least in relation to those countries that did not have the political or military muscle to challenge India’s self-proclaimed regional superpower status.
While it is true that there has rarely been a drastic and sudden overhaul in the way India conducts its external relations, discreet shifts have ocurred during critical phases which have become apparent over time. Such a process of redefinition is underway in the post 9/11 period, one which is refashioning India’s relations with the global hegemon, powerful regional blocs and erstwhile rivals all at one go. It is essential for Southasia’s smaller countries – Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka – who share the fact of complex and often bitter relationships with India, to understand the evolving geo-political environment, if they wish not to be left bereft of strategic options.
India’s relations with each of its neighbours is multi-dimensional and has never been a strong point. It has fought four wars with Pakistan (in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999) and one with China (1962). It has continuous skirmishes with Bangladesh. Sri Lanka had accused it of sponsoring Tamil separatism and Nepal, despite the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship which mandates an open border and equal treatment of citizens, looks at India’s every move with extraordinary scepticism.
India has her own litany of complaints. It blames Pakistan for having fomented trouble in Punjab and for instigating cross-border militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. Bangladesh is considered ungrateful, for nurturing unreasonable grudges even though its independence was achieved with Indian help. Sri Lanka’s acts of let-down are considered to be many, for not having appreciated the repatriation of Tamil plantation workers or the sacrifices the Indian army has made on Colombo’s behalf. Nepal is seen as unappreciative of all the assistance. provided over the years, including today when India is the main supplier of arms to the Nepali army at a 70 percent discount.
The relationships thus, have been ones of extremes, with New Delhi’s hegemonic regional aspirations met by paranoia and intense distrust of India among the smaller countries. In the mean time, two trends have been continuous: India’s insistence on not allowing any other power to intervene in the region on the one hand, and the efforts of the others to off-set India’s power by seeking to build alliances with its arch-rivals,Pakistan and China, on the other. This was most starkly reflected in the strategy of Nepal’s King Mahendra to build a closer relationship with China. In the 1960s, when Sino-India rivalry was at its peak, the use of the ‘China card’ worked and the king succeeded in preventing the Indian government from opposing his royal regime.
Both these policy approaches, however, are on the verge of outliving their strategic utility. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, India realised the need to adapt to changed global realities. It identified Europe as a potential balancing power against the American tug. At the same time, it assidously began to build ties with the US, an initiative that has been reciprocated by the White House. India also emerged as the leader of the G-20, a group of developing countries that are seeking to end discriminatory practices in the present global trade regime. It is now among the primary contenders for a permanent seat in the Security Council. Constant engagement with global powers, the adoption of market reforms and the growing recognition of India as a possible pole in the international system have all given the country newfound confidence. This confidence is most clearly reflected in its external affairs.
India is now ready to share the regional strategic space it was so possessive about till only half a decade back. It is no longer apprehensive about external powers playing a role in Southasia, as long as the scope of intervention is defined and does not alter geopolitical realties significantly. When Sri Lanka decided to make use of Norway as a peace-broker and facilitator in its talks with the LTTE, New Delhi not only supported the move but even assisted the Norwegian-led Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM). During the Kargil war with Pakistan, India willingly (even gleefully) permitted the United States to play the defusing role.
New Delhi has also been willing to engage with powerful countries, particularly the US and the UK, on resolving the political crisis in Nepal, particularly since King Gyanendra’s February takeover. In the past, attempts by Nepal to get third-country arms had led to something as stringent as an economic embargo, while now India helped facilitate the supply of arms from overseas to the Royal Nepal Army.
Foes Into Friends
While India has re-oriented its foreign policy, the smaller nation-states of Southasia have done little to wake up to the changed strategic environment. These countries have tended to look towards Pakistan or China as countervailing powers to balance India’s overwhelming presence. Even here, or perhaps especially here, great changes are underway. The India-Pakistan peace process now seems to be irreversible, and so the space available for smaller countries to gain leverage by exploiting a six decade-long acrimony is diminishing fast.
India and China are fast becoming close strategic partners and this process has gained a new thrust and momentum ever since China joined the WTO. The two countries are jointly working on a ‘twin tower’ policy on information technology: India will be the leader in software while China will take the top slot in hardware. As a part of growing friendship and commercial cooperation, Beijing has finally accepted Sikkim as an integral part of India and has corrected all its official maps and websites, and New Delhi is not pushing for an immediate settlement of the border disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin.
These dramatic shifts of the last few years – the importance of the United States in a unipolar world, the rapproachment with China, the détente with Pakistan – all have to be included in calculations made by Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. What is India? How to deal with it? If the neighbouring countries are smart enough, they can make India work for them. Otherwise, India will be pursuing its own goals rather ruthlessly and at the cost of the rest.
It is essential for India’s neighbours to shed the paranoia that has so often characterised their attitude towards the larger country. New Delhi’s actions have indeed given reason for scepticism and it would be wise for Southasia’s smaller countries to remain cautious. However, what is needed is smarter diplomacy, with Colombo, Dhaka and Kathmandu •engaging New Delhi as equals, instead of letting their insecurities diminish their negotiating strength. Sri Lanka is already building economic linkages with India on a mutually beneficial basis, and Bangladesh and Nepal too must take advantage of India’s economic boom, and seek access to its burgeoning consumer markets and technical know-how.
There are tectonic shifts underway in the global and regional scenario. With a wary eye on what the Delhi Durbar is upto, Southasia’s smaller countries would do well to join in the new Great Game.