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Zorawar Daulet Singh: Should India remake the periphery in its own image?

The country's South Asia strategy has to be subtle and sustained, implemented via an ensemble of state and civil society instruments rather than relying on economic relations alone

Zorawar Daulet Singh 

Zorawar Daulet Singh
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Recent events in Bangladesh have brought to the fore a question that should stimulate a debate in India's strategic community. Should India pursue a policy that seeks to remake South Asia in its own image?

Since the early 2000s, India's regional policy has been operating in a framework that envisioned a periphery that could plug into India's growth story. Leading policymakers called for an asymmetric approach to the neighbourhood, whereby smaller states could be offered incentives to benefit from India's economy without any immediate reciprocity in their foreign and economic policies. The fact that external markets fuel over 90 per cent of South Asian trade made such a pursuit of regional economic cooperation axiomatic.

Yet, the belief that underpinned such a regional posture was entirely akin to a businessman's model of statecraft. Underpinned with the classic idea of interdependence - whereby states that trade with each other will also learn to coexist peacefully - India's regional policy anticipated that India's neighbours would also internalise such a neoliberal world view and grasp the "rational" path to prosperity and bonhomie.

For several reasons such a transformation has evaded strategic expectations. For one, India's material capacity and leverage to meet the developmental needs of its neighbours has lagged behind alternative options that these states can acquire from external powers. One of the causes is India's weak manufacturing infrastructure and generally diminished state capacity to offer developmental solutions in the neighbourhood, especially large infrastructure projects such as road building and port development where China has entered to fill the gap.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, is the notion of state identity. In recent years, India's neighbours have found it possible to pursue their material goals without substantially disturbing their internal or geopolitical preferences. This is not surprising.

East Asia is a classic ongoing case of intensive economic interdependence being unable to transform the persistence of competing identities and world views. China and Japan epitomise such a dichotomy where high trade and investment linkages have been unable to alter enduring antithetical images that both China and Japan continue to construct vis-à-vis the other. Even China's growing economic leverage on South East Asia has not subsumed the latter's pursuit of autonomy and security.

This leads to a fundamental flaw in India's material approach to its periphery. Can economic growth that lights up South Asia be enough to transform the ideological and ideational complexion of the subcontinent? Recent empirical evidence re-affirms that interdependence can coexist with competing nationalisms. Clearly, it would take more than money to change the hearts and minds of the ruling elites of South Asia to internalise secular and plural norms of statehood.

The recurring official Indian mantra of a "peaceful periphery" is an empty slogan if it is not backed by a comprehensive South Asia strategy. Indeed, one legacy of the last decade has been an ambivalence in India's strategic discourse towards a fundamental question: should India care about the internal configuration and world view of its neighbours? The pragmatists, while sympathetic to secular democracies, argue that economic ties will transform inter-state relations, and, India should expend its diplomatic energies to promote commerce and leave geopolitics as an organic after-effect. A competing argument claims that geopolitical choices emanate from a state's identity and a ruling elite's belief system, and, if these core values are incompatible with India's, a co-operative periphery will remain elusive.

Are there limits to India's ability to shape domestic politics on its periphery? Absolutely. India cannot unilaterally neutralise the influence of radical Islam in Bangladeshi politics, just as it cannot completely modify Sinhala chauvinism towards the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. But this should not imply a passive acceptance of a political process that produces radical regimes. Surely, India can lend its weight to internal progressive forces, wherever they are embodied - political parties, civil society or the intelligentsia? After all, that is the essence of strategy.

But it is also true that norms are not uniformally internalised by every state. States must possess a modicum of receptivity to new norms. For example, Pakistan's core identity since its inception has been a negation of India's secular identity, and, Pakistani elites are unable to re-construct an alternative ideational conception that can also justify the continuity of that state. Given the absence of internal traction, India can do little to re-socialise Pakistan's world view. Fortunately, and in contrast, Bangladesh despite its tumultuous history, does possess an internal ideational traction that can be traced back to its constitution, and, the secular liberating elite that came into being after 1971. It is this idea that India is seeking to buttress in recent years.

India's policy has to be subtle and sustained, its footprint low, and, implemented via an ensemble of state and civil society instruments. During this process, India will certainly confront risks and setbacks if regressive, unfriendly forces win an occasional electoral contest. But that's part of the game. Unlike external actors such as the US, China and Europe, India is too deeply affected by internal politics on its periphery to passively witness an organic political evolution of the subcontinent.

A peaceful and friendly periphery can only emerge if radical, illiberal forces are de-legitimised in the South Asian discourse. Bangladesh may be seen as a test case for such a long-term project to socialise the South Asian periphery into imbibing a set of norms that India's ruling elites have internalised despite otherwise fierce political contestations. India might be on the verge of re-discovering a regional role for itself that since the early 2000s it appeared to have suspended to the forces of economic globalisation.

The author is a doctoral candidate at the India Institute, King's College London

First Published: Mon, January 20 2014. 21:46 IST