Monday, August 23, 2010

Towards Splendid Isolation

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pursuing a two-point foreign policy agenda of sucking up to America and appeasing Pakistan on American terms, the ‘strategic depth’ that India had once enjoyed in its neighbourhood has been lost even as China strategically encircles India

In the past, any discussion on India-Nepal relations with friends in the political establishment and the bureaucracy and professional colleagues in Kathmandu would elicit animated reaction. There were those who would gush over India and emphatically argue in support of enhanced bilateral cooperation, and there were others who would be equally vehement in criticising India for what they called its “bullying tactics”. There were moments when these differences would disappear and there would be unanimous support for India: For instance, when India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998 — the mood in Nepal was no less celebratory than in India. The journalists from Nepal who were in Colombo for that year’s SAARC summit were furious that there should be criticism of Pokhran II. One of them went to the extent of getting into a scrap with a Pakistani journalist, insisting that it was his right to defend India’s nuclear tests.

That was in the past. The present poses an entirely different picture whose colours are extremely bleak. During a recent visit to Kathmandu, there was no animated discussion, no vehement denunciation nor measured criticism of India. Instead, there was sullen indifference. India’s attempt to influence the voting in the Constituent Assembly to elect a Prime Minister has, for all practical purposes, come a cropper. New Delhi’s hold is now weakened to the extent that it cannot even ensure that the Madhesi factions remain united. The move to isolate the Maoists and ensure that Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, does not come to occupy the Prime Minister’s office once again has not yielded any results. Four rounds of inconclusive voting point to the dismal failure of any initiatives that New Delhi may have made to break the political deadlock that has paralysed both governance and the main task of the Constituent Assembly — framing a Constitution for a democratic Nepal.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran was in Nepal a fortnight ago to try and cobble together a consensus against Prachanda and in support of the Nepali Congress candidate for the Prime Minister’s job, Ram Chandra Poudel. Although his various meetings in Kathmandu have been described as “fruitful”, the reality is far removed from this official claim. The Madhesis may have temporarily set aside their differences, but they remain a deeply divided lot and not too sure of sustained support from New Delhi. The CPN(UML) is disdainful of what its leaders derisively refer to as “Indian interventionism” in Nepal’s internal affairs. The Maoists, of course, nurse a deep grudge and, with 40 per cent seats in the Constituent Assembly, are loath to be goaded by India in any direction.

In brief, the ‘strategic depth’ that India had in Nepal has been lost. Or so it would seem from the prevailing mood in Kathmandu.

But it is not Nepal alone where Indian diplomacy has begun to fetch diminishing returns. The huge advantage India had to regain space in Bangladesh, from where it had been squeezed out during the BNP-Jamaat years when Begum Khaleda Zia was in power, has been virtually squandered. The interim Government that followed was well-disposed towards India but New Delhi did precious little to reach out to Dhaka. Subsequently, after she was swept to power, Sheikh Hasina enthusiastically sought to turn the clock back to the days when the proximity between India and Bangladesh was the envy of both neighbours and distant superpowers. Her visit to New Delhi in January this year generated a tide of goodwill and a host of agreements. Half-a-year later, the goodwill has begun to rapidly evaporate in Dhaka; the agreements remain unfulfilled, shelved along with files pending political and bureaucratic attention in South Block in New Delhi.

Nobody talks of the joint communiqué that was issued after Sheikh Hasina’s visit and which was described as the beginning of a “paradigm shift” in India-Bangladesh relations. That ‘paradigm shift’ is still awaited. Bangladesh is miffed, and rightly so, that the promised removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to bilateral trade is yet to happen. India had promised to give Bangladesh 250 MW of power. But nothing has moved on the ground, not even technical work on connecting the national grids of the two countries with a 100 km transmission line which will take two years to build after the technical and tendering processes are over. By then Sheikh Hasina’s Government would be nearing the end of its tenure and there would be little to show by way of her securing effective assistance from India. Similarly, not a scrap of paper has moved on the agreement to share Teesta waters or resolve the Tipaimukh dam dispute. Bangladeshi media, which was effusive over the outcome of Sheikh Hasina’s visit, has now begun to voice doubts about India’s intentions.

Deep south, in Sri Lanka, there is increasing wariness about India. New Delhi’s engagement with Colombo has become a bit of a farce, episodic rather than sustained. South Block periodically raises the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation of Tamils displaced during Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. The assistance offered by India for this purpose by way of constructing houses is really inconsequential. Security-related dialogue has come to a grinding halt, although neither side will admit this: New Delhi for reasons that are embarrassing; Colombo because this is to its strategic advantage.

In Afghanistan, the future of any meaningful role to be played by India is extremely doubtful. The humanitarian missions New Delhi had launched are at best limping along. Once the Americans up and leave the country, India’s presence will be determined by the successor regime that may not include President Hamid Karzai and is more than likely to be aligned with Pakistan. The West has made it abundantly clear, notwithstanding polite statements to the contrary, that India can at best play a peripheral role in Afghanistan; the future belongs to Pakistan. A crafty politician and a seasoned survivor, Karzai has wasted no time in electing to go with “my brother Pakistan”.

Frankly, what India is left with by way of ‘strategic depth’ is Bhutan. There too a question mark looms large as democratic Bhutan has begun to cast its net wider, seeking cooperation with countries other than India. It does not see happiness as confined to relations with India.

Yet, during the six years when the NDA was in power and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was determining the thrust of India’s foreign policy, India’s bilateral relations with its neighbours were on an upswing. The advantages that then accrued to India have now been all but lost. If these countries were partnering with India then, they are partnering with China now. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opting for a unifocal foreign policy solely directed at improving relations with Pakistan and choosing to ignore other countries in the neighbourhood, this deterioration was bound to happen. A charitable explanation would be that this is by default and not design. A realistic assessment would be that with all attention, political and bureaucratic, focussed on Pakistan, albeit without any movement forward, we have lost the initiative in the rest of the neighbourhood.

While it is true that we have a Foreign Minister heading the Ministry of External Affairs, it is equally true that neither the Minister nor his Ministry feels sufficiently enthused to carry forward policy decisions, leave alone re-craft policy to suit the constantly changing dynamics of the region’s geopolitics and geostrategy. The Prime Minister’s Office is obsessed with pursuing a two-fold policy: Cosying up to the US on America’s terms and engaging Pakistan in dialogue — also on American terms. Everything else can wait, and if it can’t wait, tough luck. This has resulted in a strange lassitude taking over South Block, with some of the best minds in the Foreign Service just idling away, marking time. As for Foreign Minister SM Krishna, he is blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the neighbourhood; even if he is notionally aware, he is happy to be left out of the loop and do nothing to correct the situation. His competence, or the lack of it, was on display during his recent visit to Islamabad and reconfirmed by his astonishing utterances after what was a hugely disastrous tour of duty.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of India’s wilful, some would say stunningly callous, disengagement with its neighbours, China has been stealthily stepping into the breach with spectacular results. In Kathmandu, there is a palpable shift in public opinion towards Beijing, and this is not necessarily on account of the Maoists. Even those who are opposed to Prachanda are favourably disposed towards China. With work on to connect the landlocked country with China by rail and road, there is an increasing realisation that Nepal does not need to depend on India for its essential supplies, including oil. China has effectively posited itself as an alternative, and one which can fetch far more benefits to the country and its people. Trade with Tibet is a lucrative option and the fact that China has allowed Nepal to open a Consulate in Lhasa has not gone unnoticed: It’s seen as a rare privilege, which it is. The children of Nepal’s opinion-makers are being offered scholarships to study in Beijing University. The media is being supported in more ways than one. China is now seen as a ‘benign’ neighbour, which suits Beijing fine, providing it with crucial ‘strategic depth’ at India’s expense. It’s a telling comment that in sharp contrast to the strident criticism that follows any perceived “pro-India” move by the Government of Nepal — Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has had to retreat and withdraw his decisions on several occasions — there is popular praise for any deal that is agreed upon with China.

In Sri Lanka, too, China’s presence and influence continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Hambantota Port is now a ‘pearl’ in the Chinese ‘necklace’ encircling India. But that is only one of the many achievements scored by China. Its continued military assistance to Sri Lanka, which would have been India’s prerogative had the UPA Government not discontinued the supply of defence hardware under pressure from the DMK, has helped forge a strong relationship that will not be easily shaken. What remains unquantified and unknown is the extent of influence Pakistan has come to wield over Sri Lanka by riding on the coat-tails of China. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is too astute a politician to rub India on the wrong side and takes extraordinary care to say the right things in the right place, but he has silently, quietly forged a special relationship with Beijing which, in turn, has helped him strengthen ties with China’s ‘friends’, most notably Iran.

It is only a matter of time before China makes decisive inroads into Bangladesh. Beijing has not been idle and there are reports of increased interactions and enhanced talks with Dhaka. For all we know, China could be negotiating the purchase of Bangladeshi gas and securing port facilities in that country. With Burma in its pocket, Bangladesh is the natural next stop for China. Beijing is determined to increase its sphere of influence beyond the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

As for Pakistan, China is already deeply entrenched in that country, in many ways much more than the US is. From ballistic missiles to JF-17 fighter aircraft, from nuclear power plants to infrastructure, China continues to shower its ‘all-weather’ friend with every conceivable military and civilian assistance. The Gwadar Port will service China’s oil and gas transhipment requirements, apart from providing Beijing with a strategic outpost in Arabian Sea off the Persian Gulf. Once the proposed Karakoram rail link between Kashgar in Xinjiang province and Havelian near Rawalpindi becomes operational, there will be a tectonic shift in the region's geopolitics.

The strategy is obvious – to contain India to its territorial borders — and the tactics to achieve that objective are ruthlessly selfish, as they should be. India’s hocus-pocus policy of ‘enlightened self-interest’ cannot but founder on the rock of China’s aggressive expansionism.

Ironically, it is only now that there seems to be creeping realisation in South Block of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. A meeting of India’s Ambassadors to SAARC countries, chaired by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, was held in Rangoon last week to take stock of the situation and try and refix India’s priorities. Interestingly, the meeting was attended by India’s Ambassador to China, which makes eminent sense. But this is at best a bureaucratic exercise which cannot be carried forward unless there is matching political backing. Mere tinkering with policy won’t do anymore; India needs a whole new set of initiatives to reclaim the space it has ceded — or at least as much of it as is possible in the given circumstances.

That, however, remains uncertain. As of now, there is nothing to suggest that Manmohan Singh is willing to give up his obsession with Pakistan (and the US) and refocus attention on the greater neighbourhood. It is suggested by his admirers that Manmohan Singh is driven by the desire to go down in history as the Indian Prime Minister who brokered peace with Pakistan. That’s a noble desire. But shouldn’t he rather want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who expanded India’s sphere of influence in its immediate neighbourhood? Or must national interest suffer on account of an individual’s myopic vision?

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