Narendra Modi's decision to invite regional heads of state to attend India's democratic renewal was a refreshing display of statecraft. Let's appreciate the context of Modi's ascent to power. The international community, particularly the west, has grudgingly accepted this latest national mandate. Modi's outreach was a prestige-enhancing move to demonstrate India's central position in Southern Asia.
But what was intended to be a subcontinental move was quickly converted by the Indian media into an India-Pakistan circus. This is disappointing because India's real challenge is to craft a regional policy and role that can shape the geopolitical and developmental pattern for the subcontinent.
Can we anticipate Modi's regional world view? A shared belief within the strategic community and bureaucracy is India has been an absent regional power, unable or unwilling to exercise any sort of a leadership role in the region. If Modi's PMO shares such a perception, we can expect some change in Delhi's neighbourhood policy.
A bemusing aspect of our foreign policy discourse is nearly every analyst claims to be a realist while prescribing a policy. It is as if employing a realist idiom would help legitimise and diffuse the idea more effectively.
The reality is that India's approach to the region is now being contested by two images. As I have argued previously ("Should India remake the periphery in its own image?" Business Standard, January 20, 2014), the dominant image for the last decade has been underpinned by a neoliberal conviction that economic interdependence alone will produce a friendly periphery. The "pragmatists" opined that long-standing regional disputes were standing in the way of a "rational" approach to inter-state relations. And if only Westphalian instincts could be set aside, the pragmatists reasoned, South Asia might become one giant economic powerhouse.
The origins of this framework can be traced to the Gujral doctrine of the 1990s. In fact, the Gujral doctrine has been the preferred regional framework for every government since the late 1990s: NDA-1, UPA-1, and UPA-2. The central norm was India should assume a posture of re-assurance and pursue incessant dialogue on all core disputes. The doctrine also prescribed a norm of non-interference for India's role in the neighbourhood.
The central flaw in such a unilateral peace-building spirit is there was no supporting strategy or norms to guide Indian policy-makers on what goals they ought to be pursuing, how they intend to pursue these goals, or whether India should even pursue a regional role altogether. Having removed the logic of statecraft, the Gujral doctrine pinned its hope on an organic self-discovery of rational behaviour. To the school of state-centred realism, such a framework would sound incredibly post-modern and quixotic for our times.
The empirical consequences, however, leave no doubt about its efficacy. In recent years, as India's neighbours sensed a distant Delhi, they began pursuing foreign policies that paved the way for external actors to fill the vacuum left open by India. China has emerged as one of the biggest beneficiaries.
The pragmatist's idea of South Asia is being contested by a realpolitik and power-oriented approach to the region. How would Modi evaluate these competing images in his neighbourhood policy?
Both regional approaches imply a different policy framework. The pragmatic approach is more passive and includes self-restraint on India's part to the evolution of a regional order. The pragmatist would never rock the boat in the region and, would hope such an accommodative posture will yield a peaceful periphery. The realpolitik approach is more proactive and implies India is shaping the regional agenda.
The pragmatic approach is a low-risk approach since India is more or less reacting to events around it. The realpolitik approach is more challenging because it requires pursuing concrete security and developmental goals with each of India's neighbours. It also recognises that for India to play such a role, different parts of the state must work together. The latter should pose fewer problems given the redistribution of political power across India and the emergence of a purposeful Delhi.
Going by official statements, Modi has set the terms for a future conversation with Pakistan by affirming a position that there cannot be a sustainable relationship until sponsored violence from Pakistan ceases. This is necessary because the Pakistani strategic establishment has convinced itself that cross-border terrorism is a bargaining chip in any grand negotiation with India, and, calibrated violence is an extension of Rawalpindi's regional policy. Beyond terrorism, India has reiterated a willingness to establish non-discriminatory trade relations with Pakistan. Overall, it appears that Modi will pursue a bottom-up transactional approach rather than jump-start an ambitious agenda in search of a final solution on territorial questions. Nevertheless, for a change, the ball is in Pakistan's court.
As Modi's regional policy moves beyond Pakistan, the more bold initiatives lie elsewhere. There are two states central to India's ability to mobilise a shared identity for South Asia - Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Both these states are counteracting radicalism. Afghanistan is resisting radical forces being funnelled from across the Durand Line. Bangladesh is engaged in an ideational and power struggle between secular and radical illiberal forces. Both these states need India standing alongside them in their struggle to construct a stable and plural democracy. Engaging a civilian Pakistani regime could become part of a wider approach to de-legitimise extremism and militarism in the subcontinent. But Pakistan can no longer dominate India's regional policy.