The goodness of neighbours

Over the past year, a cautious mix of sagacity and coherent strategy has helped Indian diplomacy orchestrate some significant successes in its neighbourhood. In this process, the foreign policy apparatus has succeeded in shattering some oft-held myths about India’s foreign policy in the region.

The West has often criticised India for being reluctant to promote democracy in its neighbourhood and for acquiescing to military dictatorships and half-baked democracies. 2009 was a good rebuttal to such criticisms. In Bangladesh, in the wake of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny, India quietly supported a shaken Awami League government to retain control of the regular armed forces and assert civilian supremacy. That the BDR mutiny was inspired by the Jamaat-e-Islami and the radical Islamic Chhatra Shibir, did not escape New Delhi eyes and timely support to the Sheikh Hasina government prevented yet another military (or paramilitary) takeover. Notwithstanding the fact that the predecessor—the interim military government—had been fairly co-operative, India had no hesitation in stating during Sheikh Hasina’s visit that a democratic Bangladesh was in its best interests. In Sri Lanka, in the wake of differences between the Sri Lankan government and the General Sarath Fonseka after the end of the war, it was widely reported that the Sri Lankan army was planning a coup. Colombo requested Indian assistance. India reportedly then mobilised its forces on the southern coast in a sign that it would not accept a coup against a democratically elected government and would intervene if required. Whatever happened next, the coup did not materialise.

Another common critique of Indian foreign policy is that it is pusillanimous and tight-fisted with its smaller neighbours, especially in issues such as distribution of water resources. Over the past year, this myth has been trounced as well. Witness for instance, the assurance to Bangladesh that its sensitivities on the Tipaimukh dam in Tripura will be accommodated. Or the recently announced readiness to review the 1950 Friendship treaty with Nepal. The $1 billion credit line to Bangladesh and the power transmission agreement are also signs of a more confident India that is generous with its neighbours.

Not being able to convert its soft power and bonhomie with friendly neighbours into security gains is a charge often levelled against South Block. But over the past two years, collaboration with Nepalese security services has substantially reduced the ISI and jihadi groups’ use of Nepal as a transit point for infiltration into India. More recently, Bangladesh detained and handed over leaders of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)—all successes that are signs of a stronger Indian state and better coordination between its security and foreign policies towards the neighbourhood.

Yet another common critique of Indian foreign policy is that it is not pragmatic enough. Although India’s Afghanistan policy is far more complicated than with its eastern neighbours, during the past year, it has been a picture of pragmatism at work (even if it wasn’t always deliberate). The tacit and cautious bet that Hamid Karzai would emerge the winner in a close presidential race paid off. Although taken aback by the electoral fraud allegations against Mr Karzai, New Delhi correctly calculated that he was well ahead of the other contenders and would win even if a run-off were to be held. By not commenting on the elections and by keeping a low profile, India gained tremendous goodwill with Kabul when Mr Karzai eventually won (and was endorsed by the very nations that openly doubted his legitimacy earlier).

Indian foreign policy has also been often criticised for being excessively hostage to the vicissitudes of domestic politics. Pakistan policy has especially been an example of this and sadly, not much progress has happened in this relationship to allay this criticism. It is undeniable that India’s options with Pakistan are among the toughest foreign policy choices that any nation faces in the world today. Linking or de-linking talks with terrorism seems to have little impact on the latter. And yet, the measured prudence displayed with other neighbours may be worthwhile in the Pakistan relationship as well. For instance, placing some “trial balloons” in the domestic media about Balochistan to gauge political plays and sentiments in the run-up to Sharm-el-Sheikh, could have pre-empted the controversy that followed the communique.

But there are signs that South Block is learning from its mistakes even on this count. Even as reports of border incursions by the Chinese mounted towards the end of 2009, the government’s remarks were in sharp contrast to the alarmism in the public discourse.

There are several possible explanations for these changes. At least one seems to be current political will, a commodity that has often been blamed for India’s foreign policy debacles. India’s economic rise, which its neighbours want to emulate, is another reason. Frequently successful efforts of late by friendly governments to call out and isolate pronounced anti-India elements within their countries’ polity has also helped break the cycle of rumours and distrust.

Challenges do remain. Promoting the cause of democracy without being interventionist means that India’s ability to restrain developments such as the post-poll excesses in Sri Lanka can hit the glass ceiling in the short-term. The reversals in the London conference mean that making Afghanistan policy excessively Karzai-centric may not yield dividends.

But what might the recent changes mean in the larger sense? The consistent patterns in the neighbourhood indicate that we may be moving towards a new South Asian doctrine in the process—“trust and security co-operation from neighbours would be rewarded by India with economic incentives and support to democracy”. New Delhi should continue this pattern in bilateral ties and complement it with bottom-up public diplomacy in neighbouring countries. But for now, South Block can afford to reflect and smile.