In late 2016, a senior Indian government official, in a meeting with the envoy of a neighbouring country, spelt out the consequences that the country would face if it crossed the Narendra Modi government’s newly “muscular foreign policy”. At the time, the Government had put Pakistan on notice on terror attacks, and cancelled Foreign Secretary-level talks; in Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa government, that had been seen cozying up to China was voted out, with some reports that Indian intelligence played a role in facilitating opposition talks; and in Nepal, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s coalition government had fallen apart, with a similar nudge reported from New Delhi.
The message the official conveyed was that New Delhi would use all its levers to prevail over any uncooperative South Asian neighbour. However, the tough messaging did not find much favour over time. By the Modi government’s second term, it had made peace with a much more consensual, conciliatory policy in the neighbourhood — visibly improving ties with each country (minus Pakistan) through high-level visits, extending development aid and lines of credit, and enabling a rush of soft power diplomacy.
A change in approach
The contrast between India’s response to the events in 2016 to the present is stark, after five neighbouring democracies underwent non-electoral changes at the top, namely Myanmar, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The first difference is that New Delhi has not been held responsible in any of its neighbouring capitals for attempting to interfere in their political processes. Second, South Block has abandoned its uniformly muscular “one size fits all” approach to the region.
While in Myanmar, the Modi government continued engagement and even strengthened ties with the military junta that overthrew the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, in Afghanistan it severed ties with the Taliban that took power in Kabul by force after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country. In Nepal where Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba came to power after the Supreme Court dismissed K.P. Oli, and Sri Lanka, where public protests forced Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to appoint rival and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new Prime Minister, New Delhi has been largely supportive of the processes. Whereas in Pakistan, it has virtually ignored the swearing-in of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif after Imran Khan lost the vote of confidence.
People more than leaders
A second lesson that seems to have been learnt is that New Delhi’s messaging now is focused on people in the neighbourhood rather than just those in power. In Afghanistan, for example, the Modi government spent months in careful negotiation with Pakistani officials to ensure it could send 50,000 MT of wheat meant for the Afghan people, despite the fact that it has no diplomatic engagement with either Islamabad or Kabul otherwise. In Sri Lanka, a Ministry of External Affairs statement said that India would “always be guided by the best interests of the people of Sri Lanka expressed through democratic processes”, a subtle pitch both to the people and to democratic processes in the region. A third lesson is perhaps the toning down of rhetoric on domestic issues in the neighbourhood — the Government’s public reaction to Durga Pooja violence against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority last year was much more nuanced than its messaging during the push ahead for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019. Some have even suggested that the continued delay in framing rules for the CAA since then has more to do with concern for ties with Dhaka than with the COVID-19 pandemic.
A neutral position will not do
There are, however, other lessons that New Delhi must learn from the regime changes in the neighbourhood, and some of them apply to the Indian context as well. This is after all, the Indian subcontinent, set in the Indian Ocean, and what happens here cannot leave India untouched. Therefore, a silent or “neutral” position cannot mark the Modi government’s response to the changes in the way it has with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or China’s moves in Hong Kong or the South China Sea region. India faces the direct impact of almost every South Asian country in crisis, in terms of the need for aid and loans or a possible influx of refugees, as movements that develop in one neighbouring country are often mirrored in another. Therefore, they must be watched more closely.
The first lesson to be learnt is that populism does not pay in the long run. While the potent combination of hyper-nationalism, religious majoritarianism, and a strident anti-elitism can bring “men of the masses” such as Mahinda Rajapaksa, K.P. Oli, and Imran Khan to power (as they promise an alternative to corrupt, dynasti regimes), it does not necessarily keep them there. It is a mistake for any government to conflate an electoral win and a mandate for governance with a carte blanche for ruling a country.
The second is that the popularity of a leader can decline sharply and suddenly for one or a combination of reasons: K.P. Oli won a landslide victory in 2017 where his Left Alliance secured majorities in both houses, and formed governments in six of seven provinces; Imran Khan won all five National Assembly seats he fought in the 2018 elections, and while his party did not win a majority of seats, it won the popular vote; and the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) ruling coalition won 150 of 225 parliamentary seats in 2020. That these popular mandates could be cast aside in just a few years is a stark reminder that nothing is forever, especially in a democracy.
It is also clear that during the crises that Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka faced, the leaders who stepped into the breach may not have had the same political prowess or oratory presence as the leaders they replaced, but were acceptable both domestically and internationally because they had experience and education on their side. Mr. Deuba became Prime Minister for the fifth time, for example, Mr. Sharif had the longest tenure as Chief Minister of Pakistan’s Punjab in three terms before he became Prime Minister, and Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister for the sixth time.
The economy matters
The next lesson is one that United States President George H.W. Bush learned in 1992 despite the Iraq war and his pitch to patriotism, as Bill Clinton defeated him in an election where the big slogan was “It’s the economy, stupid”. In Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the defeat of populists has come not so much at the hand of the Opposition parties, but by the slowdown in growth, jobs and rising inflation. India had already seen six successive quarters of straight losses in December 2019, and most of the neighbourhood was floundering as well, when COVID-19 was first reported.
In the years that followed, the COVID-19 pandemic enforced lockdowns, and the resultant slowdown in the global economy made GDP figures in the region plummet. More recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctions by the West have made food and fuel prices soar. In such a situation, the change in power in these three countries took only a small push, from the military, the courts, or from street protests. New Delhi must not only study the causes of the economic mismanagement that brought change in the neighbourhood but must also survey the impact of new vulnerabilities on smaller neighbouring countries that could be exploited by global powers as they seek a more direct influence in the region.
Given the common challenges the region faces, New Delhi must find newer ways to energise regional groupings such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative, and even to reconsider SAARC, in order to discuss shared approaches to reviving tourism and exports, supporting South Asian expatriate labour abroad, and building common pools of food and fuel stocks to soften inflationary blows on the South Asian economy.
Finally, the Modi government must learn from the lessons in political culture that let down the “alpha leaders” in neighbouring democracies. One of the common threads in each of the governments (Rajapaksa, Oli and Khan) was an abhorrence for consensus building. In various ways, each of them turned their opposition into “the enemy”, and froze out the media, non-governmental organisations, and any voting constituency other than their own.
Nations, especially democracies run on many engines — not just the single monolithic one of the party or people in power. As New Delhi essays its role as a regional leader, the Government would be wise to not only study the impact of changes in the neighbourhood on Indian policy but also to look into the mirror the neighbours hold up to India, for a better understanding of its future challenges within the country.