Short of options or will power: India’s declining influence in South Asia

Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

Is India losing grip over the subcontinent? While the question may appear extremely hawkish to many, it is pertinent to ask whether New Delhi’s diplomatic weight in sub-continental capitals is waning? Consider these facts:

Maldives: Nowhere in the subcontinent New Delhi has looked in a more precarious situation than the Indian Ocean archipelago. First the ouster of pro-India President Mohammed Nasheed last year in a soft coup and later this week’s arrest and release drama of Nasheed, our diplomatic establishment appears to have run out of ideas.

Bangladesh: Khaleda Zia’s anti-India stance is well-known. But lack of warmth hasn’t stopped the Bangladesh National Party chief to adhere to basic protocols and formal exchanges with visiting Indian dignitaries. It seems even that is fast evaporating with Begum Khaleda cancelling her meeting with visiting Indian President Pranab Mukherjee scheduled earlier this week citing security concerns.

Sri Lanka: With more and credible evidence coming on the war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military on Tamils, pressure is mounting on the UPA government to act against the island nation including a vote at the current meeting of UN Human Rights Council for international inquiry. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed his concern over the plight of Tamils and urged for political reconciliation, his task is cut out with ever increasing influence of Beijing in Colombo limiting India’s choices.

Taken together, these developments, particularly in Maldives’ case, are bound to be viewed as India’s strategic failure. It seems our policymakers have failed to correctly assess the ground situation. Experts, however, view it differently.

C Uday Bhaskar, a strategic expert at the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, agrees with the observation that India’s say in the sub-continental affairs has been somewhat diminishing in recent years.

“The current situation can be ascribed to two factors. One, complex changes are happening at the regional level and in our neighbouring countries. Second, our foreign policy set-up is not getting hold over the situation as they lack orientation and acumen to respond to these changes. Take for instance, India didn’t see the end of monarchy coming to Nepal while in Sri Lanka, our policy options were much influenced by domestic Tamil politics and the stability of the central government. Likewise, a deal with Bangladesh on the sharing of the Teesta waters couldn’t be finalised due to Mamata Banerjee’s opposition.”

Ashok Behuria, an expert at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), while agreeing that South Asia’s regional security architecture has changed, was cautions that there is very little scope for coercive diplomacy.

“India has no option but to find new ways of engagement with its neighbours. Hegemonic behaviour may turn out to be counterproductive for India’s long term interests”, stressed Behuria.

But, can India remain a silent spectator while its national interests are made subservient or ignored in regional capitals? In fact, foreign policy hawks may see the adverse situation as a god-sent opportunity to display the country’s might and use it to arrive in a big way into the great power system.

However, that’s easier said than done.

Commodore Bhaskar is of the view that reactive strategies and policy response is turning out to be India’s bane. “We have not been trained to devise grand security and foreign strategies. At best our responses to foreign policy challenges have remained reactive which means we can’t influence or at least minimise adverse outcomes.”

As the regional security structure may not get any better soon, India needs to learn from these situations which are akin to case studies. That can happen if the highest echelons of our government debate and discuss these issues on a regular basis and with sense of urgency.

“We need a candid and thoughtful introspection. These are case studies and must be discussed at the highest level of our government. I would like to see the cabinet committee on security affairs to review the situation in Maldives and accordingly, devise a calibrated response,” Bhaskar added.

In contrast, IDSA’s Behuria sticks to a ‘no meddling in internal affairs’ approach. Citing Sri Lanka’s case, Behuria who recently visited the island nation backs India’s current stance on political reconciliation and end to the conflict. “In Lanka, both Sinhalese and Tamils have adopted maximalist positions which is not allowing a deal to happen. The silver lining is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has talked about political reconciliation. In Maldives, we should give a chance to democracy to operate on its own.”

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