Even as a coalition government reaches the mid-point of its five-year term in India, and its economic growth settles around a handsome 8 per cent, our neighbours — east, west, north and south — are seriously dysfunctional.
In Nepal, a ceasefire between the Maoists and a government headed by a seven-party alliance has been extended.
Many promises have been made on all sides, but there is little action on the ground to end the crisis that followed the launch of the Maoist armed struggle in 1996.
In Bangladesh, a caretaker government has taken office, but there is nothing to suggest they are anywhere near resolving the gridlock between the two Begums.
The breakdown of peace talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government means the prognosis for the immediate future is a creeping conflict, if not all-out war.
Events in Pakistan are unfolding at a somewhat slower pace. The Pak-Afghan border situation remains grim, and within Pakistan there appears little effort to bring the two major political forces, the PPP and the PML(Nawaz) back into the mainstream.
India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours have always been trouble-prone, arising as they are from history, continuing poverty, competing ethnic and religious claims, poor leadership, and self-centred policies.
New Delhi is not free of its share of blame for this state of affairs, but it is also a fact that demonising India has made for ‘good’ politics in the neighbourhood.
While crises in various South Asian nations need not affect each other, each of them has consequences for India — refugee overflow, trans-border movement of terrorists, drugs and guns, and the resulting opportunity costs.
The challenge before New Delhi, which ought to have a vast deal of influence in the region, is to find a way to fix things. Notwithstanding Musharraf’s muttering, India is the dominant country in South Asia, by virtue of its location, size and economy.
Unlike the US, which has successfully used the two oceans on its flanks as gigantic moats to keep unwanted refugees and crises at bay, India has no such options.
Our border with Nepal is formally open, and that with Bangladesh informally so. Proximity makes refugee inflow from Sri Lanka relatively easy, while bad guys from Pakistan can and do come in through these and other portals.
Fencing the border is at best a limited solution. The only workable option is a strategy of engagement aimed at mutual benefit.
Since the Nineties, India has gone out of its way to woo its neighbours with dialogue and unilateral economic concessions.
Today, our policies are based on the belief that any rising tide must lift all boats in the South Asian harbour. Leaving behind any country will be a drag on all the others, especially the biggest, which happens to be India.
To this end, India is an enthusiastic supporter of a South Asian economic union and has made the opening up of the India-Pakistan border the key part of its strategy to resolve its disputes with Islamabad.
But the rising tide we speak of cannot be merely that of economic growth. While inclusive economic development is a no-brainer for the largely poor region, there is an equal need for inclusive political systems that uphold respect for diversity and pluralism.
The only system in the reckoning here is based on a liberal democratic framework which has managed to gain some purchase in all Saarc nations, but only a tentative one.
Our own experience has shown how democratic values can empowered hundreds of millions, moderate conflicts, share resources and shore up diversity, through processes that were more effective, fairer and certainly much less bloody than in China and Russia, two comparable large countries.
But while Indians resist any efforts to tamper with their democratic rights, their approach towards democracy as an ideal for others is less than enthusiastic.
This is sometimes a defensive, albeit pragmatic attitude, that enables us to deal with pseudo-democracies and authoritarian regimes in our neighbourhood.
However, in some measure it is the overhang of our relationship with the non-aligned movement, particularly in its current torpid phase, where there is a perverse disdain in acknowledging the political values and culture of the ‘capitalist’ world.
This is the dialectic that motivates calls for India to have an ‘independent’ foreign policy, which, in essence, means a policy that opposes the promotion of democracy and freedom as an important aspect of foreign relations, as well as the special ties we seek to build with other nations who think in the same way.
This is what motivated Jyoti Basu’s convoluted advocacy of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s addressing Parliament, even while opposing the right of President George W. Bush to do the same.
According to a report in The Hindu on Monday, he declared: “We see China in one way, the other (the US) in another.”
Fortunately, Jyoti babu does not quite have the gall to declare that the CPI(M) believes in ‘democracy with Indian characteristics’, or that it supports some unique ‘Asian values’ to shield India from the West.
This long digression was aimed at arguing that India’s regional grand strategy must be based on our belief that what is good for us is also good for our neighbours; in other words, pluralistic political systems, the rule of law, the rights of an individual regardless of religion, sex or ethnicity.
Only after every policy measure is viewed through this prism should New Delhi make the pragmatic and strategic exceptions that need to be made in the real world.
In this matrix, New Delhi must push Sri Lanka towards what has to be, in practice if not in theory, a federal solution to its ethnic crisis.
At the same time, it must insist on guarantees that the LTTE will give up its murderous ways.
In Bangladesh, we need to resist the temptation to give up on the BNP, and be much more aggressive in getting Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed to end their debilitating conflict.
Likewise in Nepal, India has to push the SPA to provide the necessary room for the Maoists to return to the mainstream, even while nudging the latter to sequester their arms and stop running a parallel administration.
Promoting democracy in Pakistan, even while negotiating peace with its military-led government, is the test case of our template. While it is possible to negotiate with a military regime, and even resolve some disputes, full normalisation cannot take place without the return of democracy in Pakistan.
So every step we take with Islamabad must carefully take into account the need to assist the restoration of the strong, but suppressed, democratic impulse there.
In all fairness, in recent years, New Delhi has indeed followed a policy that has sought to emphasise liberal values.
This is evident in India’s proximity to the US and the EU in shaping a common policy for Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Pakistan happens to be the somewhat awkward exception. India’s advocacy of the India-Brazil-South Africa grouping is self-consciously based on the fact that they are all democracies.
India is a member of the Community of Democracies set up in Warsaw in 2000 and has since contributed nearly a third of the corpus of the UN Democracy Fund aimed at building strategic support for democracy and human rights around the world.
Yet, the understanding of the need for a foreign policy based on values is pretty thin. Not many politicians understand why we need to promote individual freedom and human rights, or the necessity of an ethical compass to guide foreign policy.
This is seen as an area where the Kautilyan law of ‘my enemy’s enemy…’ operates.
That may have been true in Mauryan times, but not any longer. In the era of globalisation, nuclear arms and terrorism, Indians need to rethink their ancient template.
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