India’s neighbourhood which the member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka comprise, is a fairly complex geographical entity.
The constituent countries-individually as well as collectively-represent a world of historical links, shared legacies, commonalities as well as diversities which are so elaborately reflected in their ethnic, linguistic, religious and political fabric.
(i) Governments in the SAARC region are not on ideal terms with New Delhi:
- In the Maldives, President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has gone out of his way to challenge the Indian government, whether it is on his crackdown on the opposition, invitations to China, or even breaking with New Delhi’s effort to isolate Pakistan at SAARC.
- In Nepal, the K.P. Sharma Oli government is not India’s first choice.
- No matter which party is in power in Pakistan, the official dialogue seems difficult, especially with the military on the ascendant once again.
- In other parts of the neighborhood (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh), where relations have been comparatively better for the past few years, upcoming elections could be of disadvantage for India.
(ii) China’s unprecedented forays into each of these countries:
- In Nepal, China has opened up an array of alternative trade and connectivity options after the 2015 India-Nepal border blockade: from the highway to Lhasa, cross-border railway lines to the development of dry ports.
- In Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Pakistan, China holds strategic real estate, which could also be fortified militarily in the future.
- China stepped in to negotiate a Rohingya refugee return agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, host a meeting of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s foreign ministers to help calm tensions and bring both on board with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connection between them and offered to mediate between the Maldivian government and the opposition.
- This shows increasing involvement of China in internal politics of these countries.
(iii) The government’s decision to use hard power tactics in the neighbourhood has had a boomerang effect:
- The “surgical strikes” on Pakistan of 2016 have been followed by a greater number of ceasefire violations and cross-border infiltration on the Line of Control.
- The 2015 Nepal blockade and a subsequent cut in Indian aid channelled through the government did not force the Nepali government to amend its constitution as intended.
- Mr. Modi’s decision to abruptly cancel his visit to Male in 2015 did not yield the required changes in the government’s treatment of the opposition.
- Warnings about Mr. Yameen’s emergency in the past have led to the Maldives cancelling its participation in the Indian Navy’s “Milan” exercises.
- Even in Bangladesh, the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat’s tough talking about immigration has drawn ire there.
(i) Building soft power:
India’s most potent tool is its soft power. For e.g., Its successes in Bhutan and Afghanistan have much more to do with its development assistance than its defence assistance.
After sharp drops in 2016 (of 36%) and 2017 (of 19%) year on year, the budget allocations for South Asia have seen an increase (of 6%) in 2018.
After the Doklam crisis was defused in 2017, India also moved swiftly to resolve differences with Bhutan on hydropower pricing.
The government has announced a tariff hike for energy from Bhutan’s Chukha project, the first in several years.
(ii) Tackling China:
Instead of opposing every project by China in the region, the government must attempt a three-pronged approach-
- Where possible, India should collaborate with China in the manner it has over the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic corridor.
- When India feels a project is a threat to its interests, India should make a counter-offer to the project, if necessary in collaboration with its Quadrilateral partners, Japan, the U.S. and Australia.
- India should coexist with projects that do not necessitate intervention, while formulating a set of South Asian principles for sustainable development assistance that can be used across the region.
- This will all only be possible if India and China reset bilateral ties.
(iii) Learnings from ASEAN:
There must be more interaction at every level of government.
Just as Indonesia, the biggest economy in the ASEAN, allowed smaller countries such as Singapore to take the lead, India too must take a back seat in decision-making, enabling others to build a more harmonious SAARC process.
Since in last seven decades India has built its good relation with neighbours, but in the present geo-political scenario India needs to more aggressive and should take calibrated efforts to put its imprint. Though present government has prioritised neighbourhood through its neighbour-first policy, but needs a grand strategic approach.