Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Nitin Pai
Pax Indica
Opinions - IN

You might have noticed that, relatively speaking, India's policy towards the United States or Japan is far more coherent than towards, say, Nepal. Over the last few years, New Delhi was able to challenge the age-old dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), strike a favourable bargain with Washington and break into the international nuclear mainstream. Contrast that with the Indian government's inability to play any palpable role in the political upheavals taking place in all the countries across its borders. The consensus, confidence and coherence that is increasingly visible in India's dealings with the world's powers is conspicuously missing in its dealings with its immediate neighbours. Why? Because neighbourhood policy is trapped in five paradoxes.

The paradox of proximity: While a peaceful and stable neighbourhood is conducive to India's growth and development, domestic politics circumscribes New Delhi's ability to intervene coherently. Look no further than the way the UPA government handled the Sri Lankan civil war. A government that names every fixed object built with public funds after Rajiv Gandhi could still not bring itself to unequivocally oppose the terrorist organisation that killed him. It's not as if the LTTE enjoyed massive support in Tamil Nadu -- it's popularity waned after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 -- but such was the political calculus that untrammeled support for the Sri Lankan government became impossible. This opened the gates for China to make inroads into India's southern neighbour, the implications of which will unfold over the next few years.

It's a similar story with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and not always political. S D Muni, one of India's leading authorities on international relations, says that the PWD engineers in the Indian districts adjoining Nepal have a say in New Delhi's policy towards its Himalayan neighbour, because water-sharing is a key bilateral issue.

The paradox of power: as India's geopolitical power has grown so has its fear of overreach. In a way, this is a reversal of the 1980s when the Rajiv Gandhi government's ambitions were not always matched by adequate economic and military capacity. Like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi understood and was unhesitant to project power where necessary. Sending paratroopers to the Maldives to foil a coup by armed mercenaries, getting the Indian Air Force to drop relief supplies over Jaffna in defiance of the Sri Lankan government and ordering military exercises that implicitly threatened Pakistan were bold uses of power. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi had severely damaged the domestic economic engines necessary to generate and sustain that power, ultimately resulting in the overreach in Sri Lanka. That experience so scarred India's politicians and policymakers that the use of military force outside India's borders has been practically renounced as a tool of statecraft.

Instead of a careful projection of power within India's (much greater) capacity today, we have strategy by bureaucracy. When you hear policy-makers say "we will only send troops under the UN flag" you wonder whether our armed forces exist to serve our interests or those of the United Nations. This is not an argument for a trigger-happy policy. Rather, that India is incapable of protecting its interests without rethinking its policy on overseas military deployments.

The paradox of engagement: New Delhi talks to the powerless but can't talk to those in power, or vice versa. It's most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to -- the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani -- have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I'm being charitable here) is not India's fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we.

It's somewhat similar in Nepal, where we don't properly talk to the Maoists. It's the opposite in Myanmar, where we speak only to the generals and have so ignored the beleagured democratic opposition that, in the event that there is a change in circumstances in that benighted country, New Delhi will find itself needing to make new friends fast. Yes, circumstances are unlikely to change, but that's no excuse to not hedge your bets.

The paradox of process: we are relying on processes that are only feasible when they achieve the outcomes they seek. In simple English, that's called putting the cart before the horse. That absurd game of dossiers & lawsuits with Pakistan is a case in point. It would have been meaningful to use legal processes if India and Pakistan enjoyed the kind of normal relations that exist, say, between Malaysia and Thailand. But since they don't, and Pakistan's legal system is a joke (I'm not being charitable this time) dossiers & lawsuits is not only ridiculous. It is counterproductive, because anyone who reads newspapers will be put off by Islamabad's shifty, brazen, too-clever-by-half attitude.

And finally, there's the paradox of neighbourhood-we can't choose our neighbours, but we have. For centuries, Gujaratis have been neighbours with East Africans. Keralites are neighbours of the Gulf Arabs, Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore. New Delhi doesn't consider these countries neighbours. Yet they are. Treating them as if they are not has trapped us into a mindset of living in a troubled, unstable neighbourhood. This is one unfortunate fallout of the faulty conceptualisation of "South Asia" as being limited to the countries of the subcontinent. Once you see the neighbourhood as what it is East Africa, the Gulf, and South East Asia, you'll find that neighbourhood is full of opportunities, not vexed problems.

The first of these paradoxes might well be structural -- foreign policy problems are more difficult to solve when entangled with domestic politics. But the other paradoxes are those of agency -- we might be able to escape them if we want to. If we want to.

Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.