Indian Neighborhood Woes Multiply – OpEd


India has a really smart and erudite foreign minister in S. Jaishankar whose books make interesting reading and takes on the high and mighty on the world stage with subtle aggression anchored in national pride. But his Achilles Heel is India’s immediate neighborhood where he has hardly served during his long diplomatic career. 

Hence, much as his responses to China and US are spot on and his courting of Russia reflective of Indian priorities, the External Affairs ministry is wading from one crisis to another in the country’s immediate neighborhood that is now “Near Abroad” in Delhi’s official parlance. 

Nepal and Maldives has gone the China way with Indian favourites falling by the wayside in free and fair elections. New Maldivian president Mohammed Muizzu has signaled his dislike for Indian military presence on the island nation by becoming the first president to visit China (and Turkey) before visiting India. The MEA response that “India is in no hurry to host Muizzu,” seems like the classic grapes-are-sour reaction. Nepal’s PM Prachanda may respond warmly to Modi’s physical embrace, but his trade and infrastructure agenda clearly prioritises China. 

The survival of Myanmar’s ruling military junta SAC depends on Chinese financial, military and diplomatic support – hence no surprise over its lukewarm response to India’s embarrassing courtship reflected in ensuring the safe return of Tatmadaw stragglers fleeing into Mizoram and Manipur and even the supply of military hardware that upsets the country’s pro-democracy movement and ethnic rebel armies who not long ago trusted India as their future role model.

India clearly had an opportunity to augment its influence by sending something like a Gandhi Peace Mission that clearly fits into PM Modi’s stated vision of global peace diplomacy. India had a credible connect to all stakeholders from the Tatmadaw (army) to Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s NLD party and the National Unity government to the likes of Kachin Independence Army and the fledgling People’s Defence Forces, not the least the Buddhist Sangha with such deep influence in Burmese society, and which treats Bodh Gaya as how Muslims treat the Mecca and Catholics the Vatican. But Jaishankar’s lieutenants, advised by some long-ago envoys who claim Myanmar expertise, but don’t even speak the language, decided on a wait and watch policy that sounds like a euphemism for strategic inaction. 

Is it any good now to fume and fret when ChIna moves forward with a peace dialogue between the different stakeholders after the Tatmadaw is softened by crippling blows from the offensive by the Brotherhood Alliance. Beijing is making virtue of necessity by its peace diplomacy because the rebels of the Arakan Army are on the outskirts of the China-financed deep sea port of Kyaukphyu ,which holds the key to the sustainability of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor.  

India has a similar connectivity urge in sustaining its Kaladan Multimodal transport project to develop an alternative to connect to its Northeast through Bangladesh.  But it is unclear whether India has managed to connect to the Arakanese rebels who have good reasons not to trust Delhi after some rogue Indian Army officers got away with murdering the top leadership of National Unity Party of Arakans or NUPA in the late 1990s after inviting them to the Andamans to discuss military  support. 

As Myanmar’s military junta loses effective control over more and more areas to ethnic rebel forces and the People’s Defence Forces allied to the National Unity Government, India will need to look beyond the vision of its long-retired diplomats claiming expertise and adopt a dynamic policy to deal simultaneously with multiple stakeholders at the same time and take from ASEAN (and China) the ownership of the Myanmar peace process. It is easier to play the peacemaker in Myanmar than on the Ukraine-Russia front despite the lure of the Nobel Peace Prize for a leader who loves using foreign policy initiatives for domestic electoral purposes .

In Pakistan, perhaps there is no alternative to the covert offensive that has accounted for more than 20 hard-core terrorists but one needs to connect more strongly to civil society, political and ethnic groups keen to normal relations with India. India does not have to follow its 1971 policies again and perhaps cannot, but it surely needs a vibrant multiple connect strategy based on a proper reading of local dynamics. While the official response should be on nation-to-nation basis, the unofficial and real thrust should be on multiple approaches to connect to provincial organizations who have influence in the regions. 

India is in for its worst drubbing in Bangladesh, so far its most reliable ally in South Asia since Sheikh Hasina returned to power fifteen years ago. Hasina has addressed India’s security and connectivity concerns but has ruthlessly weeded out (under guidance from her all-powerful advisor Salman F Rahman) the secular India-friendly Bengali middle class politicians from important positions of her party and government. 

Having earned a bruised nose by backing the third Opposition less controversial election that would now give Hasina a record fourth term in office, India is waking up to the prospect of minimum influence within the Awami League where pro-Pakistan Islamists and pro-China traders have been shepherded into key positions in the government from the cabinet to the civil and military bureaucracy. 

A lucrative power purchase deal for Adanis may endear Hasina to some influential quarters in Delhi, but this is a poor compensation for the actual loss of influence. That will soon be reflected in China’s Teesta river project and the Pakistan-style 560 Ideal Mosque Islamic Cultural project, which threatens to develop into an alternative social power base for Muslim radical groups who now have official patronage of the Hasina government in a country where the fight for Independence was firmly anchored in secular, linguistic Bengali culture. If that space is corroded, the emotional connect to India anchored on the 1971 Liberation War will erode as well.

It defies logic why India wasted a Godsend opportunity presented by the anti-Pakistan Shahbagh movement in 2010-12 to build up an alternative platform that could challenge Awami League monopoly in the secular democratic space and decided to put all its eggs in the Awami League basket. Reducing, instead of increasing options, is bad diplomacy .

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts.

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