Why are we at loggerheads with all our neighbours?

India is a land of contradictions. Despite the oft mentioned Indian cliché of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the whole world is a family), in reality India’s engagement with its neighbours post-independence has lacked purpose, focus and energy.

Indian government has displayed a lackadaisical approach in the area of foreign relations.
India has several neighbours – Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan through Pak occupied Kashmir, in addition to Pakistan and China. The perception of the people of India’s economically less developed neighbours – that is, all the above neighbours barring China - has generally been that India has been unresponsive to the issues facing them and, to make the matters worse, it has behaved like a big bully. Most feel that India has been throwing its economic and military might around and impinging upon trade, economic, social and political aspects of their lives.

Let’s look at Saarc nations like Bangladesh and Nepal. The sentiment amongst these nations is that there is a lack of economic cooperation and reciprocation in trade from India. Instead of magnanimously helping them out like a big brother, India has pursued its own agenda of pushing its wares into these smaller countries. Such a sentiment of lack of care is inimical to building a long-lasting neighbourly relationship. In addition, there are the long-standing contentious vital issues like Farakka barrage and the Teesta River water-sharing. The Indian government’s foreign policy has been a hostage to its partners in political alliance who have been dictating terms that are in direct opposition to good neighbourly relations. Much of the goodwill that India generated after the liberation of Bangladesh has been lost because of India’s neglect in cultivating relationships.

India’s involvement with Myanmar has been a flip-flop kind. First it opposed the military junta and then favoured them and reversed once again. For a country that proclaims its pride for democracy, it did not show the same when it came to its neighbour. The relationship, if any, lacked depth and warmth. Prime minister Manmohan Singh had made an official visit to Myanmar, but the visit was sans any real push. In terms of bilateral agreements nothing of substance has come out. One infrastructure project of a cross-border road of 160 km length on Myanmar’s western border is what one can show for our ‘improvement’ in economic relations. Myanmar’s trade with India is about one-third of its trade with China. Asean countries, South Korea and China are that country’s major trade priorities. India has failed to make good mutual use of the history the two neighbours shared as regards the Buddhist religion and the British colonial rule.  

Emotive politics

Sri Lanka is another very promising neighbour, economically and geopolitically. India provides it with some economic assistance, particularly to rebuild the northern war-devastated areas. However, the big neighbour has been pressing for devolution of powers to the local Tamil population; but obviously this cannot go beyond a point, if one takes a note of the popular Sinhalese sentiment. Just as in the case of Bangladesh, the Indian policy towards Sri Lanka is fettered by the emotions of the regional parties in Tamil Nadu. The recent strong opposition in Tamil Nadu for the training of some Lankan defence personnel and the killing of the Lankan pilgrims are indicative of the emotive politics of Tamil Nadu’s regional parties.

India’s relationship with China is one of many strategic blunders right from 1950. While approving China’s annexation of Tibet, even recently India’s foreign affairs were careless in not asking for a quid-pro-quo regarding mutual borders. After all, accepting Tibet as a part of China made the latter a neighbour of Pak occupied Kashmir and countries like Nepal and Bhutan. India is not a major nation in China’s sight today, like Japan and US are. Therefore, there is a likelihood that some mutually acceptable permanent solution to the boundary problem can be worked out. In fact, the Pakistani problem will considerably ease with the softening of relations between India and China.

India’s Agni V missile may have the capability to deliver payloads right into and beyond Beijing but truly that does not provide any credible defence against today’s Chinese comprehensive military and nuclear might. Nor can India build road and rail network right into the Himalayas, the way the Chinese have done. Similarly, falling into the Americans’ plans of ‘India as a counterweight to China’ will do no good to India.

Perhaps the present situation can be used to develop the two-way Sino-Indian trade and grow stronger economically. The only strategic ‘counterweight’, if any, to China is for India to develop its own economy and raise the living standards of all its citizens.

India’s foreign policy has been indolent about Afghanistan. Afghani Taliban may soon travel eastwards ‘talibanizing’ Pakistan and spreading its terror tentacles wider into India. Although the time is fast running out, India should do whatever it can to help the Afghan government economically. India cannot be a mute spectator when Afghanistan is going the Taliban way which is a bad tiding for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India via Pakistan.

Kashmir will remain a contentious issue with Pakistan; the J&K border issue will linger, but the real danger is from Talibanized Pakistan. ‘Af-Pak’ combination should be our main focus. Nuclear warheads falling into the hands of the terror groups are a big worry.
Strategic blunders and lack of purposeful economic and political relations with neighbours has allowed China to fill in the vacuum and, so to say, ‘encircle’ India on all sides. The need is for India’s external affairs with more push and purpose.

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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