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A new neighbourhood doctrine

New Delhi must back pro-India parties in its subcontinental neighbourhood

Nitin Pai
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Worries over the and the at home have blinded us to the ongoing extraordinary upheavals in our immediate subcontinental neighbourhood.

Massive numbers of ordinary Bangladeshis have turned out on the streets of demanding the death penalty against convicted war criminals. Islamist militants have retaliated by launching a campaign of violent intimidation. Their counterparts in Pakistan are in the middle of another genocidal campaign against all minorities, with the country's Shia population under sustained attack. The Sri Lankan government shows no sign of following up on its military victory against the Tamil Tigers with a grand political accommodation of the island's Tamil people. In the Maldives, an illegitimate regime is tightening the screws on the democratically elected president it overthrew.

That the neighbourhood is in turmoil is not New Delhi's fault. That New Delhi is found wanting is.

India does not seem to have a clear idea on what it must do to protect its interests in the subcontinent. Something is wrong if a dubious regime in the Maldives can thumb its nose at New Delhi, repudiate commercial contracts and renege on deals it makes with our diplomats. Something is wrong if Khaleda Zia, leader of the embattled Opposition in Bangladesh, can cancel her appointment with the visiting Indian president.

It is easy but inaccurate to blame these incidents as mere errors of judgement, diplomatic lapses or official incompetence, although New Delhi cannot be completely absolved of these either.

In reality, New Delhi's neighbourhood policy has been adrift for some time now. The Indira doctrine of the 1970s sought to prevent the neighbourhood from hosting and allying with outside powers. This made way for the Gujral doctrine in the 1990s that sought to achieve amicable bilateral relations through asymmetric concessions and non-interference. By 2010, India had completely recast its relations with its smaller neighbours, recognising the sovereignty and independence of even the smallest of them.

It is a good thing to acknowledge geopolitical reality - that our sovereign neighbours will exploit regional power rivalries to promote their national interests. However, New Delhi has not adequately chalked out its own strategy in this brave new subcontinent. We need a new neighbourhood doctrine. Here are the contours of one:

First, India must continue to generate high rates of economic growth so as to remain the economic engine of the subcontinent. It must open up to regional trade and investment. This creates the resources, incentives and political economies for the region's elites and masses to prefer friendly relations with India. The desire to plug into a booming economy and take advantage of the opportunities for enrichment is a powerful incentive that usually has a broad bipartisan appeal. If you are getting rich with trade with India, you are unlikely to want to rock the boat.

Second, India must unabashedly back pro-India political parties in neighbouring countries and make it more expensive for anti-India parties to hold their positions. Of course, there will be some whose opposition to India is irrevocable. However, if New Delhi consistently demonstrates its commitment to back pro-India parties, such irreconcilable parties will find fewer adherents and weaken at the margin. India must offer political support to pro-India parties when they are out of power and reward them with asymmetric concessions when they acquire power.

If this doctrine had been applied earlier, New Delhi would not have easily acquiesced in the toppling of President Mohammed Nasheed's government in the Maldives and prevented the GMR group from being dispossessed of its airport contract. If it is applied now - and it must be - New Delhi would demand that the Waheed regime restore power to the democratically elected president.

Similarly, this doctrine would have indicated that the Union government bolster Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's political standing with a grand bilateral agreement, with river water-sharing in return for land transit, during Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka in September 2011. To be fair, the United Progressive Alliance government did try this, but could not carry the political system along.

President Pranab Mukherjee's visit at a critical moment for Sheikh Hasina helps. However, India must now lead the international community and put Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami on notice that its members will not be allowed to get away with murder once again.

For the United Nations Security Council, violence in West Asia is somehow more important than violence in Bangladesh, Balochistan or Sindh. Unless India takes the lead, the international community is unlikely to be interested in any of these areas.

The success of this doctrine - or any doctrine, for that matter - is contingent on economic growth. Recent and projected growth is in the vicinity of five per cent, and should therefore be a cause for serious concern in strategic establishment. If growth falters, New Delhi will begin to lose relative leverage to other powers that are economically stronger, tempting the Waheeds and the Khaleda Zias of the neighbourhood to test New Delhi's commitment.




The writer is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent non-partisan think tank

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