Time for India to set priorities in South Asia

modi-oathAfter visualising India as the ‘net-provider’ of security in and for South Asia, as then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had mentioned, the nation may now face the dilemma of defining and designing it to the satisfaction of its neighbours. It’s not without reason, cause or worry, either.

The expectations from individual South Asian nations from India in matters of strategic security and accompanying politico-diplomatic backing are different. They are at times contradictory and self-defeating, too. They may also be different from India’s perception of their requirements and its own ability in turn – not to mention expectations in return.

Afghanistan is a case in point. More than possibly Afghanistan per se, it’s the US that looked like wanting India to take up or at least share the security responsibilities in that country after the withdrawal of American troops. After decades of propping up Islamabad, the US does not trust the Pakistani neighbour of Afghanistan, nor does Afghanistan trusts Pakistan. But Pakistan does not trust India, either.

A security role for India in post-withdrawal Afghanistan should go beyond possible American perceptions about the current leadership-change in India. It should also go beyond the perception of some sections in the Indian strategic community. The fighting man decides. His decision will be dictated by the ‘larger national interests’ and also the ability to deliver and keep, as well – whichever way it turns out to be. The nation went through this discourse a decade and more earlier, in the context of Iraq, but not in the context of South Asia as a whole.

Leveraging India’s soft-power

In other South Asian capitals, there is a greater expectation, if not outright demand, for India to ‘secure’ them from the vagaries of western policies. Some see it as the West wanting to destroy their sovereignty and/or territorial integrity. Others see it also as an attempt to neturalise India in its ‘traditional sphere of influence’. To them, India is under trial and test – at times by both sides. India has to pass the/their test for them to repose full ‘faith’ in India.

To them, India as the ‘net-provider’ of security figures not in traditional terms, but in political and diplomatic terms. Nations like Sri Lanka and maybe Myanmar, too, for instance, would want India to leverage its political clout, economic might and diplomatic reach, to protect them the national, international – and at times notional — manifestations of what they perceive as a West-driven agenda.

Winning their politico-diplomatic wars in the international arena, for them, would be proof of India having the kind of ‘soft-power’ that is being talked about in the post-Cold War, post-reforms era. India’s willingness to ‘join’ those wars will in turn be proof for them that India would ‘leverage’ its soft-power at the very least in their favour. India winning those wars for them would make India a dependable ally/leader in the region. But India will be called upon to prove itself in the case of each one of them separately, and at times in quick succession.

‘R2P’

To them all, ‘R2P’, or the UN-sponsored ‘Responsibility to Protect’ has an additional, if not outrightly different connotation altogether. The UN ‘R2P’ of 2006 confers on the international community, the ‘responsibility to protect’ innocent people affected by their respective governments and the State structure. But some of India’s neighbours – and at times, India included – would want India to ‘protect’ South Asian nations from what some, if not all of them consider as the selective application of international norms and regulations, to the detriment either of individual nations or individual leaderships in any or many of these nations.

In the context of the March 2005 US visa-denial to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at that time the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, the question would now arise: Who is bigger in the American eyes just now – India or PM Modi? Or, is it the western geo-strategic perceptions in which the US in particular wants ‘middle powers’ like India to take on their security concerns in the Indian Ocean in particular, and extending it however to the nations that dot the IOR.

Why no annual summits?

Nowhere else is the Indian dilemma in the South Asian context more pronounced than in the inability or unwillingness of successive Prime Ministers to undertake periodic bilateral visits to each and every nation in the immediate neighbourhood. In most cases, prime ministerial visits from India has often marked attendance at the bi-annual SAARC Summit. If the year, venue or both are changed, the gap gets widened.

Modi’s successful recent visit was the first one by an Indian Prime Minister to Nepal in 17 long years. In the case of Sri Lanka, an Indian bialteral summit visit has not happened since Rajiv Gandhi went there in 1987 – or, 27 years ago. In the case of other South Asian/SAARC neighbours, there are no annual summits, as has become the case with far-away countries like the US, Russia, Japan and even adversarial non-South Asian neighbour in China.

India has suffered from an inevitable apprehension that the South Asian neighbours, smaller than India in every which way, were ‘ganging up’ against India – at times in the company or even possibly at the instance of the Pakistani adversary. If PM-elect Modi invited SAARC Heads of Government for his inauguration in May, it reflected a new-found Indian confidence in itself and the rest, entirely in the South Asian context, to begin with.

It is all about how India works on this equation to use – and be of use to – South Asia in geo-strategic and politico-economic terms, globally, in the years and decades to come. For reaching there, India has to be more demonstrative and even more consistent in its approach(es) to neighbours, or when approached by neighbours.

Conflicting domestic situations create adversaries against India in these nations. Whether it’s the party or leader in power, or the political Opposition, “If India is not with us, it is against us.” So when India works with the government of the day, as has been the norm mostly since Independence, the Opposition in the particular neighbour sees India in an adversarial role.

Given the dynamics of internal politics in these countries, they have to carry the burden of being adversarial to India even after coming to power. They are either apprehenisve about losing the carefully-cultivated ‘anti-India constituency’ nearer home and in the regional/global arena someone else, invariably either from within the party or the coalition of which it is a part. Bangladesh is a case in point, but possibly no neighbourhood nation is exempt.

At the same time, nations like the US and even China cannot be seen as ‘ditching’ Pakistan, for instance, if only to be seen exclusively in Indian company. Nor can Pakistan or China end up resolving bilateral problems with India, to the exclusion of the other. The ‘border dispute’ is a case in point, but there are other issues, too.

If smaller neighbours end up thinking that India was speaking up for someone else, and not for them – and not even for itself – they might choose to talk to that someone else themselves, or go to an alternative regional/global power-centre. It is already happening, or that has been the perception of the Indian strategic community. India, rather than being the ‘net-provider’ of regional security, could end up being the ‘net loser’ in geo-strategic and politico-diplomatic – and at times socio-economic terms.

Where does all this leave India with – and, in? Not only China – and the US — but also other ‘friends of India’ like Japan, EU nations and at times Australia are all over South Asia. India having customarily ‘tired out’ the US in the region against the latter’s expectations of a quick-fix solution to problems that America had perceived in and for India, Washington is out here in the open, in India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’.

India does not have much time left to set its priorities right, whatever they be. If nothing else, it cannot afford to ‘tire out’ its neighbours, who can then choose their own, individual course. They all have competition waiting at their door-steps to choose from or play against each other, or one another. After all, it is the first time that they are all looking at and up to India with new hope and expectations, after the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ had once failed them in the formative years of India’s post-Cold War foreign and geo-strategic policy. India cannot fail itself again!

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 
Courtesy (ORF)