Samir in The Times of India: Home Alone in the Neighbourhood, 2010

by Arati R Jerath, TOI Crest
August 7, 2010
in: The Times of India

India was once the undisputed big power in the south Asian region, wielding substantial influence over its smaller neighbours. But, over the years, New Delhi’s strategic and diplomatic clout in its own backyard has weakened.

In April this year, a high-pitched anti-India campaign by the Maoists in Nepal forced President Ram Baran Yadav’s government to cancel a passport deal that had important security implications for us. The deal was a contract with India’s government press to print four million machinereadable passports for Nepal to stop misuse and forgery by suspected terror agents. New Delhi was perturbed enough by the cancellation of the deal to lodge a formal protest with the Nepalese government through its ambassador in Kathmandu. The contract has now gone to a French firm, Oberthur Technologies.

Maldives turned not to India but to the United States and Sri Lanka for help when a political crisis this month plunged the Indian Ocean island nation into turmoil with angry street protests and a constitutional impasse that saw the entire cabinet resign. Where once upon a time India used to rush special envoys at the first sign of trouble, this time it was Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, who played mediator along with the US ambassador to Colombo, Patricia Butenis, and US assistant secretary of state Robert Blake. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have no qualms about using China as an outside balancer to India’s dominance in South Asia. Both buy arms from Beijing and are recipients of whopping sums of money from China for the development of infrastructure like ports, roads and airports in their countries. Bangladesh prime minister,Sheikh Hasina, candidly admitted during her New Delhi visit in January this year that there is an anti-India mindset in her country and she cannot change it.

Last year, Myanmar decided to divert to China gas that India had been eyeing. Although ONGC and GAIL helped to develop the gas fields, located in the resource-rich Arakan province of that country, and own equity in some blocks, India couldn’t get its act together on transportation issues. Tired of New Delhi’s shuffling, Myanmar offered the gas to China, which accepted it with alacrity and has already started constructing a pipeline from Arakan to feed its booming, energy-hungry western provinces of Yunan and Guizhou.

Despite receiving a reconstruction and rehabilitation package worth over $800 million from India, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has decided to ignore New Delhi’s objections and do business with Pakistan and the Taliban. He has received Pakistan’s avowedly anti-India army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, twice inKabul this year and also visited Islamabad to seek assistance in building bridges with the Taliban.

All of these developments point to the fact that over the years, India’s ability to win friends and influence people in its neighbourhood has taken a massive hit. Call it benign neglect. Or put it down to thrills from the first flush of romance with the United States and the tantalising prospect of joining the international high table. Despite a rapidly growing economy, a flourishing democracy, the unrivalled soft power of its popular culture and an army that boasts of being the third largest in the world, India’s geopolitical influence acrosssouth Asia falls sadly short of expectations. As a rising China, with an economy poised to become the world’s largest by 2025, casts its giant shadow over Asia and as Beijing eagerly fills the gaps New Delhi has unthinkingly left in its backyard, the question being asked in strategic and diplomatic circles is this: is India dealing itself out in south Asia?

“Yes,” is the emphatic response from Observer Research Foundation analyst Sameer Saran. “Clearly, we are. We should be creating more robust integration with our neighbourhood. But are we devoting enough time to this? I don’t believe we are.” Says a retired senior diplomat who wished to remain unidentified, “The concepts are all there and they are bandied around regularly. It’s important for our security and economic growth that we manage our periphery. But to do this, we need to be continuously engaged with our neighbours. The trouble is we keep taking our eyes off the ball.”

Today, with the exception of Bhutan, India cannot count a single all-weather friend in the region. From tiny Maldives in the west to Bangladesh and Myanmar in the east to Sri Lanka in the south, national interest need not converge with Indian interests and a little bit of China on the side adds heft to smaller nations when dealing with big brother India. As for Pakistan and China, former national security advisor Brajesh Mishra believes that both are jointly following a containment policy designed to keep India embroiled in tensions with all its neighbours.

“China’s presence has grown all around us. It shows the paucity of India’s influence in her neighbourhood,” Mishra says.

Analysts are perplexed and concerned by the apparent disinterest of successive governments in developing and nurturing an intense engagement with the neighbourhood, especially the south Asian nations that comprise SAARC. Consider these facts: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not paid a bilateral visit to a single SAARC country during his six years in office. Nor did his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, save for one famous trip to Lahore when the India-Pakistan bus link opened in February 1999.

A secret note prepared by the external affairs ministry four years ago lists countries in order of strategic importance to India. The US tops the list, followed by the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Russia, in that order. Surprisingly, China, a budding superpower and a neighbour with which we share a disputed border, ranks sixth, while Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka round off the top ten. Despite Bhutan being India’s closest ally in the immediate neighbourhood, the ministry put it way down on the list along with countries like Belgium and Australia. Bewildering?

It’s inexplicable, certainly. Just as India’s Pakistan’s policy is, with its diminishing returns. This is the one neighbour in which every prime minister since Independence has invested personal time and energy. And ironically, it has proved to be our most troublesome, with sections of the Pakistani establishment pursuing a policy that is downright hostile. “Somehow, we always seem to forget that the first task should be to secure our neighbourhood. This is an imperative if we want to play a global role,” says Mishra.

Analysts believe that India’s neighbourhood conundrum is largely self-created, thanks to our fatal fascination for the West, particularly the United States. While they acknowledge that it was necessary to mend fences with Washington to remain relevant in the new world order that emerged with the end of the Cold War, they feel that policy-makers in New Delhi lost sight of priorities in the chase for a seat at the high table. The last five years were a turning point, as the Manmohan Singh government locked up all its capital in pushing the Indo-US nuclear deal through.

“In our excitement at being feted by Western powers and joining the G-20, the East Asia Summit and so on, we’ve ended up ignoring our traditional constituencies. We seem to see our neighbours as pesky countries rather than important strategic partners in our growth trajectory,” said a former diplomat who did not want his name disclosed.

A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office downplayed warning notes about the hiatus that has crept into relations with neighbouring countries. He also pooh-poohed the China factor in south Asia, pointing out that Beijing is very cautious about its activities in India’s neighbourhood. For instance, although it built the Gwadar port in Pakistan, a Singapore company is running the facility, he said, adding that the US put pressure on Pakistan to take the port out of the Chinese ambit. “So, you see, there are natural balancers in every country,” he insisted.

Explaining the dip in engagement levels, he said that virtually all the neighbouring countries have been in political turmoil for the past several years, making it difficult for India to build longterm assets in the region. While Nepal is still in crisis, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have stabilised and the Manmohan Singh government is trying to repair ties with both by loosening its purse strings. Economic assistance to the two countries has been stepped up several times. Rajpakse returned to Colombo after a state visit to India in June with an assistance package amounting to $1 billion.

But the elephant moves slowly. Although India-friendly Sheikh Hasina’s victory in the Bangladesh elections last year presents New Delhi with just the opportunity it needs, signs of strain are already there. A recent article in a leading Bangladesh newspaper carried a report that blamed India for non-implementation of trade agreements concluded during Hasina’s January visit to India. In a goodwill gesture to Hasina, India had conceded a long-standing demand from Dhaka on the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi goods. The newspaper report said that bureaucrats on both sides were holding things up.

“It’s unfortunate,” says former diplomat G Parthasarathi. “If India doesn’t deliver to Bangladesh in the next five years, it will weaken Hasina and the price will be paid by us. I don’t know why we can’t be more generous with our neighbours. China sees all its neighbouring countries as an extension of its market and places no restrictions on the movement of goods. We demand reciprocity with every neighbour instead of adopting a larger philosophical approach like China.”

Saran puts this niggardly attitude down to an inability to shake off old mindsets. “We worked in poverty mode for so long that we haven’t come out of it yet, although our economy is growing at 8-9 per cent every year. We need to realise that not only has the world changed, so have we,” he says. Mishra warns, however, that economics alone cannot give India the clout it should have as an emerging power. It is equally important to develop military muscle. “We must be able to defend our borders by building up our military strength. There is an impression that India can be taken for granted because it’s a soft state. We’ve neglected our military for too long,” he says. He acknowledged that the Vajpayee government was as much to blame as the Manmohan Singh government for going slow on the much-touted fighter aircraft deal under which the Indian Air Force is slated to acquire 126 war planes as part of its modernisation plans.

While agreeing with Mishra, Parthasarathi laments that emotions get in the way of India’s dealings with its neighbours. “We make a mistake when we ask them to love us. No big country can have a comfortable relationship with smaller neighbours. We will have to learn to be realistic and ignore anti-India sentiments around us. Our neighbours should respect us. We need to create long-term assets everywhere to give them a stake in maintaining good ties with us, everywhere, that is, except Pakistan. That needs to be put in a different basket,” he declares.

PLAYING CATCH-UP
Since last year, India has tried to correct the imbalance in its neighbourhood diplomacy by welcoming almost all the heads of south Asian governments. And in an uncharacteristic show of generosity, it has also loosened its purse strings by offering unprecedented assistance packages

SRI LANKA
Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse returned home from his June visit to India with promises of approximately $1 billion in credit lines for various projects. This almost equals China’s $1.2 billion worth of loans to Sri Lanka for development projects across the island nation. Most of the Indian-aided projects are in Tamilpopulated northern Sri Lanka. They include: Construction of 50,000 houses in the northern and eastern provinces for Tamil refugees displaced during the war against the LTTE Reconstruction of at least four railway lines Construction of a new signalling and telecommunication network Rehabilitation of Palaly airport and Kankesanthurai harbour Renovation of the Duraiappah stadium Construction of a cultural centre in Jaffna Construction of a coal-fired power plant in Trincomalee.

BANGLADESH
A range of assistance measures were announced during Bangladesh president Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi visit in January this year. They include: A $1 billion credit line for infrastructure development such as construction and upgradation of railway lines and supply of BG locomotives, passenger coaches and buses Removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers and port restrictions on Bangladeshi goods and reduction of items on India’s negative list Supply of 250 MW of electricity from India.

MYANMAR
While India’s assistance to Myanmar does not in any way match China’s , the country’s military leader, General Than Shwe, found New Delhi more responsive when he visited in July this year. The agreements include: Assistance totalling around $200 million for construction of roads, electricity transmission lines and a microwave link as well as procurement of railway and agriculture equipment from India New impetus to stalled power projects on the Chindwin river basin in Myanmar Numerous HRD projects such as setting up centres for English language training, entrepreneurship development and industrial training Restoration of the historic Ananda temple in Bagan by the Archeological Survey of India.

NEPAL
With the political crisis in Nepal continuing amid Maoist allegations of Indian interference, New Delhi has been reluctant to be generous with Kathmandu despite hosting Nepalese president Ram Baran Yadav in February this year. It did, however, promise $250 million in credit for the following: Setting up a railway link Building a polytechnic institute Construction of a new convention hall near the India-Nepal border Supply of 80,000 tonnes of food grains.

AFGHANISTAN
Although there were no announcements of assistance during Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s April visit to New Delhi, India has pledged over $800 million in reconstruction and rehabilitation projects. The projects are almost in every part of Afghanistan and include the following: Construction of a new parliament building in Kabul Construction of transmission lines to bring power from neighbouring countries to Kabul Construction of roads Supply of high protein biscuits for school feeding programmes Reconstruction of a dam project in Herat province Building a national TV network Skill development and training programmes in a variety of sectors including civil services and medical missions in at least five cities.

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