Says a senior diplomat hailing from the region: "After Pokhran, Indian leaders have visited many countries in the world, neighbours excluded. They have forgotten to put meaningful bilateral content into their relationship with their neighbours. Now India has many neighbours but no friends."
Our neighbours' grievances, though varying from one to the other, include:
- A perception of taking them for granted.
- The big-brother attitude it displays. (For instance, Colombo was notified barely 48 hours before Sinha boarded his flight.)
- Its insistence on the principle of reciprocity from smaller neighbours.
- Unwilling to go the extra mile to correct its trade imbalances with all its neighbours.
Diplomats say it's time Sinha realises the pronounced sense of resentment among Nepali leaders. As former foreign minister Prakash Chandra Lohani of Nepal's Rashtriya Prajatantra Party puts it: "Nepal and India are two sovereign states. Recognition of this fact by India in words and practice would solve many of the problems between us." This sentiment is echoed across the political spectrum, prompting Y.K. Siwal, a former secretary-general of SAARC, to remark: "India alone needs to look into why its neighbours look at it the way they do."
This anger is more pronounced in Bangladesh. Abul Ahsan, the country's former foreign secretary and SAARC's first secretary-general, argues: "A particular breed of people who sit in Delhi have different preoccupations. They see themselves as the legitimate successors of the Mughals and the British." In other words, South Block still views the smaller neighbours almost as part of India.
But what is it that makes these countries complain about India's imperious attitude? Nepal points to the Mahakali Treaty (involving integrated development of the Mahakali river) which, though signed during P.V. Narasimha Rao's prime ministerial tenure, hasn't yet reached the project report stage. Says an official: "Since the mid-'90s, we see a certain slackness in the implementation of the treaty." He then points to how New Delhi's health ministry suddenly insisted, three years ago, that all vegetable and forest produce coming to India from Nepal must go through mandatory testing.
Says the official: "It was based on an obscure 35-year-old law nobody knew of. It was imposed suddenly, without allowing for development of infrastructure to carry out testing. And the nearest testing facility is in Patna. You can imagine the plight of the poor vendor (because much of the Indo-Nepal trade is border trade) going to Patna and waiting two weeks there to get a clearance for his produce. Obviously, this made it difficult for us to access the Indian market." Nepal approached the Indian political establishment to address the sudden roadblock New Delhi had erected. Nepali officials say they were even assured that alternative testing facilities would be developed—but nothing happened. No wonder senior Nepali officials are privately quite scathing about their country's inability to access the Indian market.
There's also no escaping the distinct sense of anger among Bangladeshi policymakers. In the past few months, relations between the two countries have become frosty, what with Bangladesh, in the words of a senior India diplomat, "going all around the world and complaining of Indo-Pak tensions.They went to the P 5 countries and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia wrote a letter to the Nepal PM to take up the matter at SAARC for resolving the issue, even though the SAARC charter excludes bilateral matters."
Counters a senior official from Dhaka: "What you don't permit your neighbours, that latitude is given to a series of fly-by-night mediators (US, UK.) It is either a question of hypocrisy or semantics, or both."
The political chill between Bangladesh and India has also impacted on trade. In the past months, for many Indian items all trade routes through Bangladesh have been declared off limits. The expected losses in cotton trade alone would be to the tune of Rs 400 crore this financial year.
The Bangladeshis are severely cut up because 25 lines of tarrif concessions, which they claim Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee agreed to during his June '99 bus-service inauguration, have so far not materialised. This has been compounded by what the Bangladeshis claim to be an inordinately high level of deaths caused by BSF firing. Says a senior Bangladeshi bureaucrat: "The BSF is not only trigger-happy, but they shoot to kill. Almost premeditated murders. This year alone they have killed about 70 people. Imagine if even 10 Indians had been killed, they would have taken our pants off."
But Indian government sources say they have decided to get tough on illegal immigrants, claiming they apprehend 10,000 Bangladeshis every year. In the cat-and-mouse game at the border, they argue, the BSF can do little other than shoot. The other way out is a more stringent policing on the Bangladeshi side of the border.
Says an Indian official: "All this has complicated the situation. But our policy should be guided by what is beneficial to us. But if we are losing Rs 400 crore on cotton every year, then it makes sense to provide tariff concessions to them. Our current export totals Rs 5,000 crore every year, against the import of Rs 200 crore every year. It's clear who should be more generous."
A senior Bangladesh official in Dhaka agrees: "If India makes a small gesture it won't go bankrupt. After Vajpayee agreed to provide 25 lines of duty-free access, what we have had is a lot of recriminations. It has vitiated the atmosphere. We tend to think the Indian leadership doesn't have either the will or the capacity to override its bureaucracy." Adds another official: "In the face of this antipathy, you can't expect us to make concessions on things such as gas and transit. There has to be an enabling environment. And that enabling environment will come only when goodwill is there."
Former prime minister I.K. Gujral, who initiated a brief political honeymoon with India's neighbours, explains why he succeeded where others failed: "I never consulted my bureaucrats on what could be done or whether something was feasible. Bureaucrats are trained to say no. The quality of friendship is important. The number of treaties you have with your neighbours is inconsequential. If friendship is there, even one treaty suffices. If it isn't then even a thousand treaties will not make a difference."
When Gujral was foreign minister in the V.P. Singh government, India was at odds with its neighbours: Rajiv Gandhi had blockaded Nepal, the Indian army was still in Sri Lanka and there was also the water dispute with Bangladesh. Recalls Gujral: "The day we were sworn in, we got a call from the then Sri Lankan president R. Premadasa. He curtly demanded: 'When are you withdrawing your army?' When his foreign minister came down to Delhi, I hadn't even been to my office. I went to my office for the first time in his company. In three months we withdrew our army saying, thank you, you can look after yourself now."
After India pulled out of Sri Lanka, relations have been on the mend.But the centrepiece of India's trade arrangement with Sri Lanka—the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that was signed in '98—has failed to yield the desired results. When Sri Lankan commerce secretary Ravi Karunanayake came visiting this June, he expressed concern over the yawning trade deficit and emphasised on the ineffectiveness of FTA.
On a range of issues, including bilateral air services, Sri Lankan sources say the pace of progress has been tardy. When former Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar brought this up with Jaswant Singh, sources say "Jaswant Singh pleaded helplessness". Jaswant reportedly said, "Lakshman, I've told these people but it's not happening." Politically, sources say, India took a long time even to react to a Sri Lankan non-paper on joint patrolling. India's domestic compulsions have been the main factors behind sluggish progress.
Says Sri Lanka's former foreign secretary Bernard Tilakaratna: "There's a perception in South Asia that India has now developed into a regional power with its expanding economic base and vast potential. This has created problems between India and its neighbours, such as trade imbalances." But Tilakaratna feels the other festering problem—of ethnic conflict and its ensuing implications—have been more or less resolved.
Most diplomats feel India must mend its relations with neighbours considering that the US, China and Russia have muscled into the region. Wary of India's size, and sullen at its reluctance to boost economic ties, its neighbours might find it prudent to embrace the big powers. It's time for India to set its backyard in order.
By V. Sudarshan, Arshad Mahmud in Dhaka, Yubaraj Ghimire in Kathmandu and Lasantha Wickrematunge in Colombo