By Shakti Sinha
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to attend his swearing-in was being debated in Pakistan, the Indian consulate in the western Afghan city of Herat was attacked early on May 23 morning by armed terrorists. Though the terrorists were stopped and killed, the incident brought into focus the complex and intertwined strategic environment that the Modi government inherits as it assumes office.
Even though no group came forward to claim responsibility for the attack, commentators assessed that this was the Pakistani army’s message to Modi that they, and not Prime Minister Sharif, were the key interlocutors he would have to engage with. In fact the attack had multiple additional messages. To Modi and to Afghan President Hamid Karzai – that the Pakistan army did not take kindly to India’s involvement in any form in Afghanistan. And to Nawaz Sharif, that he should not think of making any concessions to India in an attempt to move the peace agenda forward.
The change of guard in the Afghan presidency and the withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops later this year poses severe challenges to the Modi government. India has entered into a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, but India’s ability to influence events is limited. Since the fall of the Taliban, India has exercised self-restraint in terms of responding to Afghan calls for security assistance, in deference to US sensibilities, who in turn did not want to upset the Pakistanis. US’ inability to finish the job of stabilising Afghanistan could lead to its re-emergence as a safe haven for anti-India terrorists. Without putting troops on the ground, India should reassess its position and look at Afghanistan’s request through Indian and Afghan perspectives, particularly as Pakistan has not responded positively to India’s self-restraint.
To come back to Pakistan later, Modi’s invitation to Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa has expectedly drawn the ire of political parties in Tamil Nadu. Even in Sri Lanka, the refusal of Chief Minster C.V. Wigneswaran of the Tamil-dominated Northern Province to accompany Rajapaksa to Delhi is a sign that Colombo has not done enough to reach out to the Tamils since the end of the civil war five years ago. However, the stranglehold of political parties of Tamil Nadu over India’s Sri Lanka policy has weakened. This should be used to engage in frank bilateral dialogue to make up for years of mistrust. Economic concessions that the Sri Lankans have been asking for but which the Kerala plantation interests had held up, should be given, for instance. The idea should be to encourage Rajapaksa to deliver justice to the Lankan Tamils by delinking the issue from pressures from across the Palk Straits.
Modi’s call during the electoral campaign to throw out illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators and the Assam Bharatiya Janata Party’s strong stand on the enclaves issue constrains the new government’s ability to respond positively to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s determined bid to push back the forces of political Islam, something in India’s interest. In fact, India is yet to positively respond to Hasina’s significant role in stabilising Assam by effectively shutting down the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)’s safe havens. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had vetoed former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s limited effort on the Teesta waters issue. India should move on Teesta waters, the enclaves issue and look at various economic irritants that unnecessarily constrain bilateral relations. Robust economic growth in Bangladesh is the best way to slow down the flow of economic migrants into India. Modi would have to effectively deliver on Bangladesh, to not only strengthen Hasina’s efforts but also to show that being pro-India is a productive option for all neighbours.
India would have to engage more rigorously with Nepal, whose constitutional breakdown in no longer an internal issue, not that it was internal to begin with. India, US, UK and others helped initiate the process and even Prachanda as prime minister sought India’s help, unsuccessfully, with Nepal’s president on the army chief issue. Here again, India’s self-restraint has not prevented anti-India elements’ attacks on India’s economic interests, or prevented the Chinese from increasing their influence. A functioning government would catalyse economic growth that Nepal desperately needs for its stability.
Maldives represents an equally challenging opportunity. India badly mishandled the coup that removed president Mohammed Nasheed and was consequently unable to prevent the termination of the airport deal that an Indian company had won through an international competitive bidding process. Nasheed’s successors have reversed his policy of deeper engagement with India and keeping China (and Pakistan) at bay. While crude gunboat diplomacy is not advocated, India must bring home to the Maldivian government that foreign military presence in the Maldives is a red line that cannot be crossed. India must simultaneously commit itself to defending that country’s security and economic interests.
Bhutan’s elections last year demonstrated its people’s desires for maintaining good relations with India. Bhutan’s economic turnaround flowed from Indian investment in hydro energy projects as a result of which Bhutan earns increasingly substantial revenues that have been used to build the social and economic capabilities of the Bhutanese people. Such asymmetric actions must continue.
India’s inability in the short run to respond to the Pakistani army’s provocative actions, as in Herat or on the Line of Control, would constrain the Modi government’s desire for robust policy options. While continuing to engage with the civilian government so as to bolster the latter’s legitimacy, India should be under no illusion that it can deliver, even on Most Favoured Nation status, which is a misnomer as it is actually the lowest level of normal trading relations between any two countries.
Simultaneously, India would have to look at different economic and non-conventional options to weaken the Pakistani army. Ultimately, normal relations with Pakistan would only be possible if India is able to achieve a balanced relationship with Pakistan’s patron, China.
China was behind not just the military build-up of Pakistan but also behind its nuclear (directly) and missile (indirectly through North Korea) programs. To pretend otherwise, as successive Indian governments have done, has left India paying the price for Chinese adventurism. The ‘P’ word must be brought into our dialogue with China.
India needs a stable South Asia where its pre-eminence is unchallenged if it aspires a seat on the global high table. The challenge before Modi is to bring this about in a manner that gives its neighbours a stake in this process.
(Shakti Sinha is a former Indian civil servant who has worked in Afghanistan for the UN for three years. He was also in the Vajpayee administration. He can be contacted at [email protected])