Whereas the prestige of India in the West seems to be flourishing, New Delhi is having difficulties at trying to maintain South Asia in its sphere of influence.
Last month, Nepal and Pakistan agreed that it’s time to resume talks at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Diplomatic reunions of the regional bloc were suspended after India’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2016 summit, following the attack against Indian soldiers in Uri, Kashmir. The statement by Pakistani and Nepali leaders, however, ensured Islamabad a moment of lead in regional affairs. In the beginning of April, the announcement that Maldives’ government might return the gifted maritime patrol Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) to India added another chapter to the recent series of regional twists concerning its shrinking influence in South Asia.
Both events illustrate a key historical issue: the negative image of India among its neighbors. This is due mainly to the lack of a clear strategy for its primary area of interest. Hence, New Delhi’s regional carries an inherent contradiction: while it takes a hard stance in isolated events – such as in the Doklam standoff against China last year and in the Kashmir conflict – it doesn’t show the ability to take the lead in broader security concerns like the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh.
As social conditions worsened, it was expected from India, which is estimated to have approximately 40,000 rohingyas living illegally in its territory, to take the lead as a mediator. Then and again, Myanmar is not part of South Asia, but it represents an important piece in New Delhi’s Act East Policy and both countries share a border. Until this day, however, the Minister of External Affairs has been reluctant to condemn in clear terms the ethnic violence in the Rakhine state and to pressure for negotiations regarding the conflict.
The absence of a consistent regional approach created a power vacuum that is being filled by China. Without a clear strategy consistent with its national interests, India’s regional role and the security environment of the subcontinent are being undermined because of its own miscalculations. In this matter, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an ancient vedic text on politics and statesmanship, taught a valuable lesson ignored by the Indian political elite: the geographical proximity of neighbor countries represents a natural vulnerability. Therefore, shaping a favourable regional environment should be the top priority of India’s foreign policy agenda.
That being said, it is important to highlight the fact that India’s negligence towards its neighborhood is not a special characteristic of Narendra Modi’s government, as some (Western) scholars seem to suggest. The diplomatic failure in coping with its regional challenges persists since Jawaharlal Nehru: while he was aware of the global bipolar scenario that shaped the Cold War’s international dynamics and managed to put India under the spotlight of the so-called Third World, Nehru did not show the same consciousness while dealing with other South Asian countries.
And this was not limited to the traumatic Partition with Pakistan, which initiated the ongoing Kashmir conflict. Back in the late 1940s, the Indian government made clear efforts to weaken the Rana dinasty’s dictatorship in Nepal by supporting the opposition, headed by former King Tribhuvan, who was exiled in India. Back in those days, his Deputy Minister, Sardar Patel, warned him about interfering in such a strategically located buffer state and advised him that learning to deal with a different regime – even a tyrant one as the Rana government – was a much better option to assure India’s influence and regional stability. Ironically, Tribhuvan also established an authoritarian regime when he returned to power, in 1951, and persecuted oppositors and democracy supporters.
Following the end of the Cold War, the competition for influence over the Himalayan state between India and China gained a new momentum. In 2005, Nepal accused India of imposing an economic blockade as a retalliation against allegations that Indian-backed minorities (Madhesis) would be marginilized in the occasion of a new Constitution. New Delhi’s pressure over Kathmandu sparkled an anti-India sentiment in the political elite of Nepal – which now reaches out further to China to diminish its dependence on Indian imports.
Likewise, political inability hampered Indo-Sinhalese relations. Right after the process of British departure from the island was complete, in the 1950s, New Delhi couldn’t manage to negotiate the repatriation of 300,000 Indians who were persecuted and displaced in Sri Lanka. Following Pakistan’s example, Colombo strenghtened ties, first with the Western countries, then China a few years later, opposing the “non-alignment” flag raised by Nehru.
In the 1970s, an important event set a turning point for India’s regional policy: the Liberation of Bangladesh. After much reluctance to send troops to East Pakistan, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to join the war after Islamabad conducted air strikes against Indian territory. Besides that, public opinion started to demand a response to the events unfolding in the neighbor country, as nearly 10 million Bengalis crossed the border to escape from the war, resulting in a humanitarian crisis in West Bengal.
India’s successful campaign had two major outcomes: first of all, it was the first time it actuallly played a leading role in a regional issue. It should be noted that the Sino-Indian War of 1962 damaged India’s prestige internally and regionally, as it suffered a bitter defeat from the Chinese forces, losing the strategic Aksai-Chin region and a slice of its northeastern domain. The war in 1971, in turn, restored faith in the military power of India and revived the old project of becoming a great power. After this event, preparations for the first nuclear test, conducted in 1974, were accelerated.
Secondly, the war in East Pakistan represented the institutionalization of India’s direct interventionism – militarly in the 1980s and politically, after 1990 – in the neighbor countries, which ultimately led to a generalized distrust concerning New Delhi’s intentions, especially after becoming South Asia’s first nuclear country. There are several examples to illustrate this trend, particularly after the 1990s. Tracing to a more recent fact, in 2015, Sri Lanka expelled an Indian spy accused of trying to interfere in Sinhalese elections to benefit a pro-India candidate, by the time the island was seeing a greater activity of Chinese submarines near its coast.
The first neighbor to see the aforementioned shift, still during the Cold War, was Sri Lanka, where the Tamil minority’s restlessness was instigated by Indira Gandhi’s government. As a consequence, it evolved to an organized group that later would become the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Nevertheless, the Indian strategy turned out to be a regional catastrophe in terms of regional projection. In 1987, when the Civil War of Sri Lanka (1983-2009) was unfolding into the defeat of Central government forces, the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) was unable to help Colombo win the conflict. New Delhi imposed a premature withdrawal, based on the fear that Sinhalese turmoil could spill over to the southern states and trigger a Tamil reaction in India. In addition, anti-India protests erupted in Sri Lanka, as a part of the population considered the military intervention a signal of expansionism and imperialism. As a result of IPKF’s withdrawal, the LTTE were enabled to continue the attacks, thus prolonging the war and eroding India’s influence in the region.
In 1988, the intervention in the Maldives to hinder an attempted coup d’état was another red signal, as the Operation Cactus involving both the Indian Navy and the Army caused aprehension among other South Asian countries. Although relations with the Maldives improved after the intervention to the point that Male talked about a “India First” policy, once again the absence of concrete actions led the Maldives to reach out to other regional powers for investments – mainly China. After the Mumbai attacks of 2008, New Delhi began to construct 10 Coastal Surveillance Radar Networks (CSRN) infrastructure in the archipelado, aiming to keep a close eye on Chinese movimentation in the Indian Ocean, terrorist activities and illegal fish boats. In 2015, the media informed that the first phase of the CSRN was concluded but now that Male seems to be closer to Beijing, it is not clear yet whether India’s plan will suffer major setbacks, but the return of the Dhruv helicopter leaves no space for optimism.
Another missed opportunity for New Delhi’s regional power projection was SAARC. Turned into a formal bloc in 1985, it was supposed to be a regional forum to bolster commercial flows and strengthen regional cooperation. However, the efforts were undermined by the unending Indo-pakistani standoff in Kashmir and the general security dilemma that pervades relations between South Asian countries. Still, SAARC was a major opportunity for New Delhi to consolidate its role as a major regional power.
India seems to miss the fact that counterbalancing an extrarregional power cannot be focused solely on military and defense modernization. A regional strategy for South Asia needs to balance the power of arms against external aggressors with the power of persuasion through diplomatic means, especially when confidence among neighbors is declining. No SAARC Summit was held since the Uri attacks in 2016 and the Indian reluctance in reviving the bloc meetings undermines the slight progresses made in the past decades. In 2017, a few scholars thought that the SAARC satellite launched by ISRO was an indication that tensions were de-escalating, but once again there was no Summit. New Delhi’s hard stance is to some degree understandable, but the total negligence towards regional integration is isolating the country and giving Islamabad a strategic advantage, as it seeks to resume talks at SAARC-level with the support of other South Asian states.
During the I.K. Gujral years (1997-1998), he has come up with what was later known as the “Gujral Doctrine”. This was the first formal attempt of a strategy for South Asia, based on trying to improve relations with neighbor countries, solving issues through peaceful means, guarantee that no South Asian territory would be used by a foreign power against a neighbor and the prohibition of interference in others’ internal affairs. The only exception regarding this plan was Pakistan, since it demanded (and still demands) a specific treatment.
The Vajpayee term moved forward with the Gujral Doctrine by trying to make it clear that India had no intention to interfere in its neighbors’ business. Actually, the focus of his government turned out to be Pakistan, as it tested its first nuclear device in 1998.
Following the tests of Chagai-I, regional tensions soared and both countries withdrawn their diplomats from the 1999 SAARC Summit. Islamabad’s nuclearization stalled regional cooperation and the plan proposed by Gujral was set aside by the Indian government. In his last days, Vajpayee tried to reduce tensions with Pakistan, without success. Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi continued the efforts to mitigate border tensions and strengthen regional conectivity and integration, but both failed to establish a solid sphere of influence in its primary area of interest and ended up creating further insecurity in the neighborhood. In the BJP 2014 manifesto, the party stated that India would pursue friendly relations with its neighbours. As next general elections are coming, it is safe to say this goal was not achieved.
It’s time for India to break with old misculations and come up with an unambiguous strategy for South Asia the same way it does for other parts of the world. As the most populated country with the biggest economy in the region and sharing the same colonial past as the other South Asian countries, it is paramount to have an agenda to improve its regional power projection and regional security rather than focusing only on traditional conflicts that might not be solved anytime soon. Instead of just blaming China, it could stand up to its presence by strengthening investments and trade among the subcontinent while taking the lead to mediate regional issues. If New Delhi doesn’t take the lead, another country will do it.
*Luciane Noronha M. de Oliveira, Master of Arts in Maritime Studies and Fellow of South Asian Affairs of the Brazilian Naval War College. [email protected]