Ending the Regional Drift

By C. Raja Mohan

India might have no option but to develop a pro-active policy to encourage internal political change within the subcontinent.

THE MUSCULAR message on Nepal put out by New Delhi over the last weekend might not be the sole reason behind the decision of the Maoists to temporarily lift the weeklong blockade against Kathmandu. Clearly, the blockade shook the Indian Government into signalling that it would not allow the collapse of the state structures in Nepal. If the Maoists were testing India's resolve in preventing the emergence of a radical dispensation in Kathmandu, the answer from New Delhi has been both strong and unambiguous.

India's muscle-flexing on Nepal has only helped postpone the final denouement in the once tranquil Himalayan kingdom now trapped in a brutal civil war. India will need a lot more than the commitment to use force to defend order in Nepal. It will have to address the sources of the deepening crisis in Kathmandu. New Delhi should combine its will to intervene militarily in Nepal with a whole range of other policy instruments to get all the three elements in Nepal the monarchy, political parties, and the Maoists to resume the stalled dialogue on fundamental political and social change.

A calibrated use of the full range of India's diplomatic tool kit may also be necessary for New Delhi to address the other crises that are staring it in the face. Crises, it is said, often come in threes. India's political and diplomatic attention is also being sought in Bangladesh where the gathering storm has been dramatically showcased by the latest assassination attempt on the Leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina. The democratic opposition in Maldives, which now faces a crackdown by the long-serving authoritarian President, Abdul Gayoom, is seeking external intervention to restore at least minimal freedoms.

The triple crisis in India's neighbourhood should hopefully force the Government to take a long hard look at the deeper challenges confronting it in the subcontinent. Strange as it may seem, India's diplomacy with its two most difficult neighbours China and Pakistan is in reasonably good shape. It is the approach to the smaller neighbours that is crying out for some focussed thinking. Over the last decade, India's policy towards these neighbours has suffered from lack of sustained attention and a seriousness of purpose. Distracted by the post-Cold War debate on global issues, great power diplomacy, nuclear weapons, and the traditional security challenges with China and Pakistan, India has been unable to devote the time and energy required for transforming its regional policy, particularly towards the smaller neighbours.

The word, "smaller," in fact, is a misnomer. Bangladesh with its 130 million people is one of the largest nations in the world. Nepal is not one of those mini- or micro-states that dot the world map today. Population alone does not define the importance of these countries to India. While Maldives might be a micro-state, its location astride the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean underwrites its geopolitical importance. Bangladesh is the sixth largest destination of Indian exports and shares a border with India that is longer than the one with China. Nepal's only borders are with India and China. Nepal's open frontier with the heartland States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal makes India extremely vulnerable if a hostile regime takes over in Kathmandu.

Nepal and Bangladesh might not have threatening armies but their potential to act as safe havens to forces hostile to India is unlimited. By just closing their eyes to anti-India activity on their soil, they can hurt New Delhi badly. Small countries in South Asia have a huge capacity to unravel India's security paradigm. The developments in Nepal and Bangladesh in recent years have repeatedly pointed to this threat.

In ending the accumulated drift in its regional policy, India has to recognise that state failure is a real possibility in the subcontinent. Decades of misgovernance, absence of adequate economic growth, widespread poverty, and the decay of political institutions have all combined to make state failure a real security challenge in large parts of South Asia, including some in India. While the role of failing states and their ability to threaten both regional and global security has been debated after the events of September 11, 2001, it is only now that India is facing up to the issues involved. To be credible, India's latest message that it will not allow state failure in Nepal must be accompanied by fresh answers to a whole range of questions.

First, the Nepal crisis has brought back into focus the question of India's use of force in the neighbourhood. Since its military intervention in Sri Lanka during the late 1980s, India has been extremely cautious in committing its troops to defend its security interests in the immediate neighbourhood. Prudence on use of force is always a sensible policy. But to suggest it will not be considered at all, as the recent Indian foreign policy tended to, is not wise.

Bringing some ambiguity into when and how India will use force in its neighbourhood could have a salutary effect on the various extremist forces in the region as well as on states that follow policies that accentuate internal and regional security threats. Use of force is obviously the final option, one that would be undertaken reluctantly. India however needs a specific policy framework on a whole range of related issues such as military assistance, supply of arms, training of security forces within a broad rubric of defence cooperation with friendly neighbours.

Second is economic diplomacy. Until now, India's commercial policy towards the neighbours has been bereft of strategic content. The penny-pinching mindset of the Commerce Ministry has meant India has squandered its natural advantages in shaping the pace and direction of regional economic cooperation. India has a huge stake in the rapid economic development of its neighbours. Without the creation of widespread prosperity in the region, the non-military threats to security such as migration and rise of political violence will undermine India's stability.

Despite the huge trade surplus that it enjoys with Dhaka, New Delhi has held back on providing access to Bangladeshi goods to the Indian market. In tying up mutually beneficial cooperation to concessions on either the economic or security front, New Delhi has hurt its own interests. A unilateral gesture from New Delhi on duty free access to goods from Bangladesh with specified Indian and third party content could help rapidly transform the nature of economic integration between the two countries.

Third, without a more effective border management India will not be in a position to ensure its own security or provide substantive assistance to its neighbours. India has allowed the infrastructure on the borders with Nepal and Bangladesh to rot to fourth world standards. While the infrastructure for trade and communication across the boundaries is dismal, in most places there is none at all for mobility along the borders on the Indian side.

Building fences as on the Bangladesh border is unlikely to help. What is needed is improving the capacities of security forces to world standards. Equally important is to end the pitiful levels of governance in the border districts in India's heartland as well as the remote Northeast. State failure is a reality on the ground on our own side of the border. Unless the Centre takes up the question of border management in its entirety on a war footing, India's ability to respond to crises in the region will be severely circumscribed.

Fourth, and most difficult, will be to develop the political gumption in New Delhi to insist on positive political change within the neighbourhood. The crisis in Nepal cannot be addressed through military means alone. Unless India brings sufficient pressure on King Gyanendra to end his futile effort to strengthen his own power, push the political parties to get their act together, and initiate serious internal reform, the Maoists will continue to gain the upper hand. In Bangladesh, too, India must press the two main political parties to end their bitter rivalry, which has allowed the growth of extremist forces in that country. And in the Maldives, New Delhi must warn President Gayoom to either shape up through democratisation or ship out.

Non-intervention in the internal affairs of the neighbouring countries is indeed a sensible proposition. Yet given the deepening crises in the region and the long-term consequences of state failure, India might have no option but to develop a pro-active policy to encourage internal political change within the subcontinent. That is part of the burden of being a responsible power in the international system. India will have to develop both the instruments of persuasion as well as define the limits to its use of force in the region.

August 28, 2004



Posted August 28, 2004