The air in India is thick with national politics—all eyes are set on the gathering storm, trying to read straws in the wind. Big election results, a sense of tectonic plates shifting, court verdicts on high-profile cases like Rafale and 1984…it’s all happening. Commoners and pundits alike could be pardoned for not having developments in far-away Maldives uppermost on their minds, or for not devoting time to seemingly elusive trends in foreign affairs. But if you do a quick CT-scan of India’s often ailing neighbourhood, the image slices will reveal a lot of furious action. Pakistan has a mint-fresh prime minister. Bangladesh may (or may not) get one as the New Year dawns: the country votes on December 30. Sri Lanka got a new premier too—or was it two of them?—no, as the dust settled over a most incredible clash of the country’s institutions, the old PM seems to be back. Then Maldives….
All this tumult in domestic politics across South Asian nations has far-reaching implications on the way India is seen and placed in its neighbourhood. Any movement on the scale of importance is relative: the point of comparison is China. The old terms of endearment reserved for India by its immediate neighbours—Big Brother or regional hegemon—now get framed in that larger race for leverage. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure winds down to its last few months, it’s an apt moment to take stock. He had, after all, inaugurated his tenure with a dramatic, unorthodox gesture of friendship, inviting leaders from these countries to his swearing-in. How has he fared in a domain where he wished to leave an imprint?
Maldives, blessed with a polity that’s in stark contrast to the idyllic vistas of the archipelago, may offer a clue. Symbolism and words often go hand-in-hand in diplomacy. And the just concluded three-day India visit of the new Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih exemplified this. Not only did Solih choose New Delhi as the destination of his maiden state visit, he also publicly committed to make ‘India first’ the policy choice of Male. The import of this is being analysed in different regional capitals—particularly in Beijing. China has reason to be concerned, given the huge investments it has made in this Indian Ocean nation.
This is no minor, passing event. Firstly, its geographic location gives Maldives a vital importance in maritime affairs. India-Maldives relations, once seen as that between ‘natural allies’, has been a dramatic roller-coaster ride of late—it went through one of the worst phases under the pro-Chinese president Abdulla Yameen, whose iron grip was abruptly cut short with a shock defeat in elections this September. Yameen had not only locked up his opponents and declared “emergency”, but had also signed a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing to spite India (and downgrade its trade ties). More worrying was the possibility of a strategically placed island being leased to China by Yameen: that would have given it a naval base and allowed it to control proximate sea-lanes. But crucially, India ignored calls from different Maldivian opposition leaders to intervene militarily—a marker of New Delhi’s new policy vis-a-vis the domestic politics of its neighbours. Most commentators had written off India as a marginal player in Maldives’ future, but it took the Maldivian electorate to do the needful, even as all Yameen detractors came together to rally behind Solih.
‘Neighbourhood first’ was the cry that rang out in 2014. There have been persistent challenges, but under the Modi government’s foreign policy, India has acquitted itself well in its core area of influence.
New Delhi, meanwhile, gears up to receive its next honoured guest: Lotay Tshering, the new prime minister of Bhutan. And Lotay, who is visiting from December 27, has already told local media, “My intention is to start visiting our neighbours and I’ll start with the most important—India.” Bhutan is a buffer country along India’s long border interface with China, and is host to the Doklam theatre: its significance is self-evident. Along that same axis is a bigger country, Nepal, which too has been bivalent in recent years. The government of K.P. Sharma ‘Oli’ has had a testy relation with India in the past and had not bothered to place an envoy in India for over a year. Now, it too has sent Nilambar Acharya, a veteran politician-diplomat, as its ambassador to New Delhi. Acharya, a member of the Indo-Nepal Eminent People’s Group, is keenly aware of the complex set of issues at play. The mobile Himalayan plate seems to have stabilised.
Closer to Maldives historically and ethnically, Sri Lanka has just got over a volcanic phase of political instability: earlier this week, ousted prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reinstated after the country’s Supreme Court ruled in his favour. President Maithripala Sirisena had dismissed the Wickremesinghe regime on charges of corruption and inefficiency, dissolved Parliament and crowned former president and strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, someone who had once snubbed New Delhi to cultivate closer Chinese links. India now has good relations with all three leaders, and opted to allow the political dynamics to play out. In contrast, the Chinese jumped the gun to support Rajapaksa and ended up being criticised by the Colombo political circle. Anyway, Wickremesinghe’s return ends a spell of uncertainty for India. Its relevance stands restored; its position as one of the most sought-after countries for Sri Lankan leaders stays undimmed, despite over-enthusiastic Chinese activity.
Modi and Maldives President Ibrahim Solih oversee the signing of MoUs by ministers Sushma Swaraj and Abdulla Shahid of Maldives
Even Pakistan, despite its continuing ambiguity on terror as state policy, has been keen for re-engagement. Take its decision to build the Kartarpur corridor, to ease the passage for Sikh pilgrims to Guru Nanak’s resting place, which falls in Pakistan. It’s a major gesture, a public relations exercise undertaken by the Imran Khan government, which came to power in August, to coax New Delhi towards dialogue. It might not have an immediate, concrete effect, India being set on the path of general elections. Despite the deep state on both sides being entrenched in suspicion, ties have often fluctuated depending on the political leadership: this awaits a clearer picture in the summer of 2019.
Policy-planners in New Delhi were long habituated to viewing South Asia as India’s backyard. But that position has been put to test by China’s growing footprint, internal political developments in South Asian countries moving in lock-step with that. The Belt and Road Initiative under President Xi Jinping has led China to invest heavily in infrastructure and other sectors—an interest in political developments, particularly stability, in these countries is a natural corollary. Thus, the ‘China card’ has of late allowed many South Asian neighbours to drive a better bargain with India in key negotiations.
Going by the recent spate of unrelated events, one may ask: is India back in business in South Asia? Is it on its way to reclaim the neighbourhood? And has the Modi era helped?
To be sure, Modi is the only Indian PM in over 30 years to have visited all South Asian countries. His predecessors have emphasised the importance of the region, some even made foreign policy the hallmark of their rule, but engagement with sustained efficacy has eluded most. Strategic affairs commentators point out the inherent difficulties in crafting ties with smaller neighbours. A number of observers, like Mahendra Lama of JNU, feel India often lacks the confidence to accept the position it enjoys. “For all South Asian nations, India is the first choice,” says Lama. “But Delhi lacks the confidence to open up and embrace them.” Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal counters: “If we try and embrace them, they feel suffocated. And if we keep our distance, they accuse us of indifference.”
A peaceful, stable neighbourhood is vital for India. One, it’s directly linked to India’s development. Besides trade ties, the porous borders—a legacy of the subcontinent’s artificial partition—allows easy movement of people and instability in its vicinity can easily affect India. Two, India’s desire for a bigger role on the global stage crucially hinges on it being able to calm the waters (and silence the artillery) closer home. The third factor stems from China’s looming presence. The simultaneous rise of the two Asian giants poses both challenges and opportunities for both. India senses the advantage in improving bilateral ties, but would obviously not want to concede turf in its own backyard, where it could be vulnerable.
Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China, in April 2018
Mention must be made of Afghanistan and Myanmar too. In the former, India has invested billions in the war-torn nation’s development, reaped its goodwill, yet must contend with Pakistani influence, as the Taliban makes a strong return and a tired West mulls an exit. In Myanmar, India, a friendly nation, is an option the nation has vis-à-vis China.
“The biggest challenge for India is to create a neighbourhood that shares its aspirations for peace, security and development rather than be a perennial distraction. We have to convince them that India is an opportunity, not a threat,” says another former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran. For its global or Asian profile to have any heft, it simply has to manage its own periphery, he feels. “Because of the asymmetry of power, there is a fear of domination. This can only be dealt with through engagement, skilful diplomacy and by leveraging our assets in terms of historical and cultural affinity.” All too often, he acknowledges, India adopts policies that impact neighbours without taking their concerns into account. “This must change,” asserts Saran.
Indeed, a course correction has been evident over the past year or so. It has realised that pressure tactics such as a trade blockade—employed against Nepal, to force it to accommodate Madhesi aspirations in its constitution—only earn it ill-will and bad blood. PM Oli has since been engaging with China, especially to gain access to an alternative transit route so as to not wholly depend on India. That may have goaded the Modi government to revert to a more conciliatory approach, instead of trying (in vain) to isolate Nepal.
Engagement is now less imperious and more consultative: besides the hands-off policy on internal politics, helping nations according to their felt need means they retain their sense of sovereign decision-making. For instance, take its $1.4 billion financial aid package to Maldives, meant to help it tide over a balance of payment crisis. In Sri Lanka too, India’s stocks have been rising. Many young Sinhalese now keenly learn Hindi to engage better with the large Indian tourist flow. And both the Sinhala-dominated south and the Tamil north and east are humming with India-generated activity in infrastructure.
Modi with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina at the Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan
Policy savants also realise they cannot look at the neighbourhood only through the narrow prism of security. “China is a reality. There’s no way we can stop our neighbours from engaging with it,” says former Indian ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae. Rather, he suggests getting neighbours to partner in its own growth. “The only way you can ensure stability is by making them stakeholders in your prosperity,” adds Rae. Even with China, the Modi-Xi meet at Wuhan opted for staying off border hostilities.
While ties with Pakistan await the new power matrix in India, Bangladesh poses a challenge. Sheikh Hasina’s government has been one of India’s closest allies and it wants her to return to power, while also desiring a stable eastern front. However, in most recent elections in South Asia, voters have opted for change. Can Bangladesh buck the trend? If not, India will have to work hard to gain the confidence of the new regime. But the new policy imprint is visible again: rather than overtly back the pro-India Awami League, New Delhi would prefer to make the stakes of engaging positively so high for the rival BNP that it too sheds its animus. Ironically, this may yet be an abiding legacy of the Modi years.