From the time India was scissored into its present shape out of a larger piece of brown parchment, the question has lingered: how exactly do we orient ourselves to what surrounds us? There were no easy answers. On the flanks were parts that were formerly India, severed by amputation; on the north was an indistinct set of fluid dotted lines cutting across icy swathes, where human populations and oxygen levels both dipped to nearly zero. Four major wars in the first quarter-century after freedom marked a legacy of flux: diplomacy had to forge its subtle tools in this fire. One possible diplomatic answer to that question came from a man whose natural instincts harked back to a pre-split state of unity. Not a surprise, for Inder Kumar Gujral (b: 1919) had lived through the Partition, and carried a strong residue of old Lahore inside him—along with the diction.
Through the decades, when he was ordinarily resident in Lutyens’ Delhi, with his capital at IIC, even Gujral would not have imagined himself as the one on whom would fall the chance to deliver the 50th anniversary I-day address from Red Fort. The experiment with history was short-lived, but his 11-month stint as India’s PM left behind a semi-formally enunciated way of being for the country: the Gujral Doctrine. Still relevant in the Modi era? Yes, of course.
Indian and Chinese soldiers fight as the border row keeps flaring up in fits and starts
It’s an interesting menu of what-if options in history. Gujral’s tenure and his soft, unassuming persona may seem to belong to another epoch—the unilateral declaration of India’s muscular nationalism of a year later, Pokhran-II, would certainly not have happened had he continued. Nor its consequences: Kargil, and a decade of heightened conflict. But his legacy also endured as the other pole of India’s dichotomous foreign policy: in the strenuous peace-making of the Vajpayee-Manmohan years, the Lahore bus ride, the cricket diplomacy, an attempted détente in Kashmir. And with his ‘Neighbourhood First’ stance, what Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into office with was his own variation on that doctrine. He had essentially borrowed Gujral’s idea—of paying greater attention to India’s smaller neighbours, nurturing relations within South Asia and beyond—and made it his own, with a few tweaks.
He made a statement by inviting all SAARC leaders for his oath-taking in 2014. That August, he travelled to Nepal and punched all the right buttons in his speech to Nepal’s Constituent Assembly—even Kathmandu’s streets weren’t immune to the excitement. Then, President Xi Jinping came calling in November and visited Ahmedabad, the PM’s home town—the first of many meetings. Contrary to what pundits may have predicted, Modi even tried to make peace with Pakistan, stopping over in Lahore on his way home from Afghanistan to greet Nawaz Sharif on his birthday on Christmas Day in 2015. It worked well for a while; then the Uri terror attack put a stop to those attempts. There has been no turning back since. By now, a year into his second term, the Neighbourhood First policy itself seems a historical relic.
This May 22, 2020, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base in Galwan valley along the Line of Actual Control. Chinese and Indian commanders have agreed to disengage their forces in the disputed area after a clash left 20 Indian soldiers dead. The commanders reached the agreement on June 22 at their first meeting since the June 15 confrontation.
All of it was not due to Delhi’s miscalculation. Pakistan is genuinely difficult to predict and deal with so long as the army calls the shots. And a resurgent China under Xi has its own ambitions of a Sino-centric world order—for it, a Doklam or a Galwan Valley is a small piece on a chessboard that sizzles with bigger points of contention: Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea, Senkaku…. To understand the difficulty with our other neighbours, one needs to return to Gujral. His doctrine was built around compassionate engagement: in Indian foreign policy, it marks a pole of maximal generosity of spirit. He wanted India to exude a more humane, gentler image to smaller neighbours daunted by India’s size and population. This was an attempt to reverse a legacy of paternalistic thinking in New Delhi, one that assumed a natural arc of influence—if not a formally writ one—over the affairs of independent countries in the subcontinent, some of whom were often seen as nothing more than protectorates. A former foreign secretary, in his ambassadorial days in Colombo, was even nicknamed the ‘Viceroy’. It’s this unexamined machismo in India’s behaviour that Gujral wished to dial down, so as to engage as equals.
That core ethos has not necessarily accompanied every gesture by India, within its borders or without. Relations with ‘Pakistan’ or ‘Bangladesh’, for instance, cannot exactly go into realms of boundless bonhomie if the names get to be freely used as the nastiest cusswords within Indian discourse. In June 2015, hyperventilating Indian media reportage on a cross-border strike at NSCN(K) militants in Myanmar caused some embarrassment even with a friendly Naypyidaw. In September that year, all the warmth towards Modi’s India evaporated in Nepal as New Delhi initiated a nearly five-month-long blockade of the landlocked Himalayan nation, then freshly ravaged by one of its worst earthquakes. A top Indian diplomat, now in high office, was described as “uncouth, brash and imperial” in his conduct towards Nepal’s politicians. There was, to be sure, a perceptible gap between the intended spirit of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and the actual execution. It is into this gap that China insinuated itself, investing its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy towards the Indian Ocean Region with an extra buzz and purpose around India.
Paying greater attention to smaller neighbours—is still relevant
All the inroads China has been making into India’s ‘backyard’ emanate here—and it’s not just about the Chinese ships and submarines that frequent the high seas. Take Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Asia: an astonishing bid to create a modern Silk Road network where all the world’s asphalt converges on Beijing. India is a lone big absentee; every other regional nation with the exception of Bhutan has signed up. Every country is in need of funds for infrastructure, and it’s difficult to resist China’s chequebook diplomacy. China now has a military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa—just like the US and old European powers. The latest flashpoint on India’s periphery—the bloody faceoff in Ladakh—is an extension of this new harnessing of territory. A kind of Chinese lebensraum. No wonder, India’s South Asian neighbours are watching the situation with interest—indeed, a touch of glee is not absent.
The presence of China hands all of India’s neighbours something substantial to leverage against what many of them perceive as a local bully—even if India has hardly exited the game. The Maldives had turned its back on New Delhi under Abdulla Yameen, welcoming China with open arms, but pulled back when the regime changed. In Colombo too, the Rajapaksa brothers are back in the saddle—President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda have struck all the right chords for now, but everyone knows the China card can always be brought out at critical moments. Even Dhaka has discovered a new bipolarity. Last week, China announced massive tariff exemptions to Bangladesh—on an astounding 97 per cent of its products. Even that left a bad aftertaste in Dhaka after a Calcutta-based Bengali daily described it as “charity (khoyraati)”, though the paper apologised on June 23. “Many are disappointed. This word is not acceptable to me,” said foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen—he stopped short of making a formal protest, using a more diplomatic tack. “India is indeed our biggest friend,” he said, and affixed a qualifier, “India-China are both good friends, close neighbours…development partners”. Islamabad, of course, has no need for as many niceties, nor does the exchange stay verbal. The LoC remains red hot. It has been so ever since Uri/Pulwama—firing is common and casualties routine.
But the new ambidexterity developed by Bangladesh is matched—indeed, surpassed—only by Nepal. Last week, Kathmandu issued a new map which showed three contested areas—the Lipulekh Pass (which connects Kumaon to Tibet), Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, some 370 sq km altogether—as its own. After Nepal’s parliament endorsed the new markings, India called on it to “refrain from unjustified cartographic assertion”. Nepal has harked back to the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli signed with the East India Company to establish its claim to these slivers of land, located on the strategic India-China-Nepal trijunction. The Communist Party government of K.P. Sharma Oli is now sitting pretty and asking for foreign secretary-level talks—a kind of brinkmanship that could scarcely have been imagined earlier. “Nepal has pushed itself into a corner by publishing the maps. Kalapani is in Indian territory, will they fight and take it from us?’’ asks former diplomat Gautam Bambawale. Asked whether Nepal would actually get together with China and Pakistan for a loose alliance against India, Kunda Dixit, editor, Nepali Times, retorts: “Not a chance. If Indian media keep talking of Nepal’s generals and politicians tilting towards China, it may one day become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But ganging up is unlikely.”
Yet, a congruence is visible. The new map was triggered by India inaugurating the Lipulekh road last month, quite like how China resents India building roads, bridges and airstrips in border areas. The Ladakh faceoff has undoubtedly emboldened Kathmandu too. India is soft-peddling the issue, aware that much of this ultra-nationalism is domestic posturing Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli needs to do—and indeed goes back to the wave of anger triggered by India’s 2015 blockade. That was classic old-style India, acting on its ‘natural sphere of influence’—strongly reminiscent of how a similar blunder by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 had actually exacerbated anti-India sentiments, a fact the MEA’s institutional memory should have alerted it to.
When Nepal’s new Republican Constitution was unveiled in 2015, New Delhi took the side of the disenchanted Madheshis, a linguistic-demographic continuum from eastern India. Nepal, which transported 80 per cent of its essential supplies through India, was hit hard. And Oli, PM then, vowed never to repeat the strategic mistake of depending on one country. He turned to China and wrapped up a string of deals. Beijing also promised a rail line from Tibet to Kathmandu. Soon after the blockade was lifted, Oli was ousted—he suspected an Indian hand. His re-election campaign in 2017 focused on memories of the blockade, and promised those days of suffering would never recur. A thumping majority ensued, and while he has repaired ties with New Delhi, China now has a new omnipresence in Kathmandu.
Though less rancour-ridden, recent years have not been exactly salubrious for India’s ties with Bangladesh, one of our closest friends in the region, besides Bhutan. The Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina has always been India-friendly. But since 2019, the shadow of NRC/CAA has vitiated the air, what with loose talk of deporting alleged Bangladeshi migrants back home, and the equation of Bangladesh with Pakistan and Afghanistan as a country where religious minorities are persecuted. Hasina, whose regime prides itself on its secular-liberal values, said nothing much in public. But the Opposition and citizens’ groups planned open protests during Modi’s scheduled visit to Dhaka for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s 150 birth anniversary celebrations. The pandemic gave Dhaka an excuse to scale down the celebrations. The prime minister cancelled his visit. Altogether, not the best hour for diplomacy. Bambawale makes light of the issue. “I don’t see how a foreign country can be impacted by India’s domestic issues, be it the scrapping of Article 370, the NRC or CAA. There are fissures within India, which Indians have to reconcile among themselves,” he says. But domestic issues often have a way of resonating beyond borders—the same reason why New Delhi finds the Madheshi issue relevant enough to India to intervene in another country.
Army chief General M.M. Naravane meets soldiers in Ladakh during a visit to review the situation after the Galwan face-off with China
Using ‘go to Pakistan’ as an all-purpose slur against dissidents, or describing Bangladeshi migrants as ‘termites’ may resonate well with the BJP’s electorate. But it’s that very aggro that has given China new latitude in the subcontinent—thus contributing to India’s diminution here. Bambawale, an old China hand who has had long stints in Beijing, including as ambassador till his retirement in 2018, believes that’s offset by a larger gain. “Don’t really know what China gained from the current crisis...making this hot border even hotter,” he says. This view derives from the fact that there are circles within concentric circles here. If Madhesi-Nepal-India forms one loop, and that’s set inside the bigger one of Nepal-India-China, even that’s a subset of a bigger one. The world’s biggest tussle for dominance, the new not-so-Cold War, is raging between China and the US, along military, technological, trade and currency axes. India, in this picture, is analogous to the Madhesi of Nepal: a chess piece. “They have pushed India closer to the US. With a hostile China looming large, India may be left with no option but to move closer to the US,” says Bambawale. He feels China has lost out strategically for whatever small advantage gained in Galwan. India’s potential alternatives: linking up unambiguously with elements like the Quad or Donald Trump’s new-fangled Pacific Deterrence Initiative. India’s tilt towards the US dates from P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government in the years following the break-up of the USSR, gathered pace in the Vajpayee years and ripened during Manmohan Singh’s UPA regime with the 2005 India-US nuclear deal. As China’s global clout grew during those years, so grew a bipartisan consensus—spanning the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama presidencies—about regarding India as a countervailing force to China in Asia.
At one time, there was much talk of India and China rising together in the ‘Asian century’. That prospect still lives in deep economic ties—the thousands of million dollars of Chinese investment in India, in smartphone brands like Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi and Huawei, in Indian brands like Paytm, Flipkart, Zomato, Makemytrip, Big Basket, Policy Bazaar, Ola et al. But the new trust deficit winds the clock back to 1962. Questions are being raised about the government’s China policy, whether Modi’s personal style of diplomacy has back-fired. Had the Wuhan spirit and the Mahabalipuram tete-a-tete lulled India into complacency? Has Modi—beginning with his four China visits as Gujarat CM, when he was not welcome in US or Europe—made the same mistake as Nehru by being too trusting? And within this matrix, what about the subcontinent? A new restraint is visible vis-à-vis China: not many party loudmouths are going ballistic on television shows. Can the same spirit be extended to our smaller neighbours?
Former diplomat Bhaswati Mukherjee believes this is a dilemma faced by any large country. Smaller neighbours naturally tend to be overly sensitive and often misinterpret the actions of a larger country. Modi’s overtures to Nawaz Sharif fell through “because Pakistan did not play ball due to its own domestic reasons. It’s not India’s fault,” she says. “Under these circumstances, the only policy that stands up is not to be provoked.” On China, it’s a question of a vigilant engagement, she says. “China is doing what it does across Asia. It’s important to manage relations. But we must consider that this is 2020, not 1962. India is no pushover.” A meaningful reboot of ‘Neighbourhood First’ is perhaps overdue—and something like the Gujral Doctrine flows only from an inner confidence.