by N Sathiya Moorthy
In a recent interview, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa had this to say: “The region looks up to India and India must examine itself whether or not it is doing the right thing in dealing with its neighbours…What they are doing is the best thing or not…”
Similar sentiments have been expressed by other leaders in other countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood from time to time.
The context and contents vary, but there is an overall and overwhelming feeling that there is more that India can do, and should do, not only in the bilateral and multilateral contexts, but more so in ’defending’ the neighbourhood and neighbouring nations against any onslaught from the international community on any front and on every count.
President Rajapaksa’s observations came in the context of India voting in favour of the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, Geneva, in March. “If India stood by us and supported Sri Lanka’s request for more time and space, who knows, there may not have been a resolution at all,” he said further in this regard.
It is unclear and unsure if some nations that were either believed to be on Sri Lanka’s side, or were fence-sitters until the Indian decision was known, would have stood by Colombo had New Delhi done so. It is not unlikely that the neighbourhood Indian vote at Geneva might have provided the right reason for some of these nations to vote in a way that they may have otherwise too intended. Sri Lanka should not be blind to such a possibility in these long weeks after the March vote.
There is no denying a greater role for India in the post-Cold War regional context. On most occasions during the Cold War years, many, if not all neighbours, believed that India was out to devour them, physically. The ’Bangladesh War’ (1971) and the merger of Sikkim in the Indian Union (1975) provided the right recipe for such anxieties, which were not always based on facts or analyses flowing from such facts. The Indian involvement in the ethnic issue in the Sri Lanka of the Eighties is a much debated topic in this context.
India too had its share of woes against the neighbours, not often spelt in public, it would seem. New Delhi was made to feel that regional forums like the SAARC were being used by the neighbours to ’gang up’ against India. Such apprehensions went beyond the traditional adversary of India, namely, Pakistan. China did not figure in these calculations. While the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union did dominate the South Asian political and international discourse to varying degrees at varying times, they did not reach the peak as such arguments have reached in these years after the Cold War.
Inclusive region, inclusive India
The post-Cold War years have witnessed a change in the fortunes of India, and a simultaneous acknowledgement of its role and presence by neighbourhood nations too, including Pakistan, the traditional adversary. There is a certain acceptance and consequent acknowledgement of India’s predominant present in the South Asian region among the neighbouring nations – and the consequent willingness to grant New Delhi a certain dominance in regional affairs, so to say. It may have flown from the Indian economic miracle, which coincided with the end of the Cold War era. Existing and emerging global powers, starting with the US in a unipolar world, too acknowledged New Delhi’s rightful place in the South Asian context.
The post-Cold War change in the mind-set of India’s neighbours owed not necessarily to global perceptions about New Delhi’s role in the emerging geo-strategic scenario in the crucial Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China, for one, may say that the Indian Ocean is “not India’s Ocean”. Beijing too however acknowledges the reality of the South Asian neighbourhood. Yet, when the US as the ’sole super-power’ has a large military presence in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan and Pakistan, abutting India, and China too has been wading through these waters, possibly on a fishing expedition since, it is India that is getting increasingly noticed and its dominance too noted, in the neighbourhood capitals.
In the years immediately after the sudden end of the Cold War and the shocking collapse of the Soviet Union, India did take time to readjust itself to the emerging realities, and re-position itself in the global and regional contexts. Coupled with the ’forex crisis’ of 1989-90, the failure of the ’Soviet socialist model’ in the country of its origin, had a stiff lesson for India, too. The revival of the Indian economy under the western model of market capitalism was accompanied by higher expectations for and in India. As if by cue, some strategic thinkers, both in India and elsewhere, began feeding on the belief that India’s place is not confined to the Indian Ocean and it could not afford to go slow on reaching into the rest of the world, the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, figuratively though.
Correctives have since been applied, or seem to have been applied to such perceptions. Western concepts like the ’String of Pearls’ theory deserve to be viewed from the Indian context and analogy. More importantly, there is greater realisation in New Delhi that India needs to win over friends in the neighbourhood before it could expand the scope of its reach and sustain it too. This has evolved into a scheme of shared dreams between India and its neighbours, over the past decade in particular.
Translated, it meant that on the economic front, all South Asian nations need to grow together, with India as the peg. In geo-strategic terms, there is an increasing realisation among India’s neighbours that their size and the size of their economies could not fund and support the eternal need for securitising their shared neighbourhood. This is particularly so in the context of the increasing international relevance of the Indian Ocean, in economic, energy and consequently geo-strategic terms.
The relevance of the Indian Ocean in the global context is more than what it was at the height of the Cold War, when again the Ocean was an issue, and IOR nations would call for making it a ’zone of peace’. Today, instead, when there is a massive extra-regional military presence in the immediacy of the South Asian neighbourhood, no one is talking about a ’zone of peace’. Everyone is instead considering ways to strengthen regional security, if not regional relevance, in the global context. India, not just the Indian Ocean, has become more relevant to the regional calculus than in the Cold War past.
Politics of diplomacy, diplomacy of politics
President Rajapaksa’s observations are directed even more at the political dominance of India in regional matters, and Sri Lanka’s ready acceptance of this fact. For some time now, neighbouring nations of India have looked up to New Delhi for solace of some kind, whenever targeted by the international community (read: the US, the EU and the UN, and possibly in that order, too). There is an increasing realisation among many of them that for India to play its rightful place in the comity of nations – and on their behalf – New Delhi has to be made a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is in the absence of this, some of them argue, that they could not afford to shake off China or Russia.
In the perception of some, if not all of India’s neighbours, the West is out to destroy them, one way or the other, whatever the reason. In the post-Cold War context, when leaderships and mind-sets have changed in a more liberalised and democratised circumstances of these nations, their dependence on China, for instance, for fast-tracking their developmental agenda in a technology-driven world, needs to be seen as they would want India and the rest of the world to see the same. That is not however happening, all the time.
It is here perceptions differ. India’s neighbours need to ask them, if they want New Delhi to only argue their case in international forums or with the larger international community, or take up leadership role in South Asia. There is lots of difference between the ’representative’ status that some of these countries seek to confer on India selectively, and the ’leadership’ role that they need to accept and acknowledge in relation to New Delhi, for the latter to serve their collective cause effectively. ’Sovereignty issues’ should not be allowed to come in the way, and there needs to be a national discourse within nations and among them, including India, before a collective approach could be considered.
Selective and collective
In the Sri Lankan context, for instance, New Delhi did argue Colombo’s case at the UNHRC. It worked with unlikely allies in Pakistan and China to have the EU-sponsored resolution of the 2012 kind defeated and a counter-resolution favouring Colombo, passed, instead. In matters of economic diplomacy, it is now conceded that by serving notice to the IMF that it would be ready to extend the credit facility sought by Sri Lanka, New Delhi did make the latter come around and meet Colombo’s demand without further vacillation. It is in this context, President Rajapaksa’s indication that the Indian vote at Geneva this March should be viewed as a one-off affair needs to be contextualised, too.
There is a need however for neighbours of India to arrive at a broad understanding with New Delhi on the kind of support that each one of them expected from New Delhi from time to time. Being democracies, all South Asian nations, including Pakistan, are often driven by domestic politics and demography which tend to influence Government opinion to varying degrees. In the absence of a commonality of broader approach to such issues, and consequent institutionalisation of approaches, it would become difficult for one or more of the South Asian nations to back any other, to the hilt.
The Sri Lankan expectation for Indian support is at international forums. The polity and society in the country are uncomfortable acknowledging any possible role for the northern neighbour in the domestic affairs of the nation. Conversely, in neighbouring Maldives, the stake-holders in the current political crisis want India to play the role of a regional super-cop of sorts, and sort out the wrong-doer, one way or the other. They would not want the international community to be involved, nor would they want to approach the international community over the head of India, if New Delhi could address their domestic concerns. The contrast is striking.
Governance issues and strategic concerns
On larger issues of governance too, opinion is divided among nations and national polities in the South Asian context. In India – and Pakistan, too – judiciary, the third pillar in a modern democracy, has come to play a crucial role in the affairs of State, lately. In Maldives, the judiciary is seen by some as a part of the problem, not of the solution, at least for now. In Sri Lanka, too, opinion is divided. On ’war crimes’, another issue of immediate concern in the Indian neighbourhood, there is support for one in Bangladesh, but opinion is at best divided in Sri Lanka. In both cases, the victims and the alleged perpetrators are local nationals.
In another interesting coincidence, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, in early 2011, sought to confer more powers in the hands of the Executive President. Only months earlier in Pakistan, where the Indian influence and relevance cannot be as much, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution took away the President’s powers to dissolve the National Assembly, making the Westminster model more vibrant and secure than already. Bangladesh, on the other hand, experimented with an ’interim, national government’ ahead of parliamentary polls, but has done away with it, since. There are political protests across the country, over the issue.
In India, where the Constitution continues to confer powers on the Union to dissolve errant State Governments, the Supreme Court has placed a check against any colourable exercise of the presidential authority. The ’Bommai case’ (1994) remains the court-directed law of the land, till date. No political party, or Government, either in the States or at the Centre, has ever sought to replace the court order with a constitutional amendment, either way. There are larger issues of power-sharing between the Centre and the Provinces, where neighbours cite India’s size and consequent complexities, to be able to adopt it, or even adapt it to their conditions.
These are not issues on which Governments in South Asia would want to follow the Indian model, or be seen as consulting New Delhi in the matter for their adaptability after a point. With four nascent democracies of sorts in Nepal and Bhutan, Afghanistan and Maldvies, with Sri Lanka being the oldest in the region and India the largest, both Pakistan and Bangladesh too have contributions to make, one way or the other – if there has to be no drift in the process, for New Delhi to be able to set a regional standard for itself, if not for the rest of them all, to be able to back them to the hilt – both on the domestic front and in international forums.
Pitted alongside and at times against domestic issues in South Asian nations are larger issues of national security, both internal and external. Barring Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, there is an increasing acknowledgment of India’s existing and emerging roles in the regional and international contexts. The vast swath of the sea abutting the South Asian nations, barring Nepal and Bhutan means that individual nations would have to earmark a large portion of their budget for defence, going beyond their means. It would still be inadequate in every which way.
Given its vastness and the vast interests it has in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India cannot escape the policing of its waters, whether in the context of internal security, or external threats, or energy security in the context of economic growth. Policing the adjoining waters with no extra cost would benefit India too. Neighbouring nations are as much the first line of defence for India as they could become the first line of offence – which has proved to be the case with Pakistan, where the nation is itself the threat to India, but not necessarily to any other in South Asia, barring of course, Afghanistan.
In a way, the Indian presence is already being felt across the region, more than in the past. At the same time, Indian predominance and preponderance in the region would be unacceptable to nations that want New Delhi to be assertive in the domestic and/or international arena, in their cause. It is a mixed bag at best, but the situation is still evolving. The question is this: Should India allow things to continue taking the evolutionary route or jack-boot its way, which is neither desirable, nor workable – and hence unthinkable for New Delhi, too!
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written)