In 2019, India must be open to opportunities and vigilant against threats
As 2019 approaches, 1979 comes to mind as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December transformed South Asia. The year has a dramatic quality for other reasons too. The revolution in Iran that toppled the Shah changed our neighbourhood to the north-west. A brief but intense border war between Vietnam and China similarly created new realities to our South East. Our neighbourhood was simultaneously being impacted in other ways. In January 1979, China and the United States established full diplomatic relations and this also symbolised the beginning of modernisation and opening up of the Chinese economy. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s execution that year was a setback to a fledging democratic process in Pakistan comparable only to the assassination of his daughter in 2007.
Looking back is useful to underline how much our external environment has changed. 1979 was in a world where one of our principal objectives was to keep great powers out of our region. Even the Soviet Union, our strong partner during the tumultuous events of 1971, was not an exception to this general principle. Our position on its advance into Afghanistan may have seen by almost everyone else as being uncritically supportive. Yet it was a position of great internal discomfort with the consideration always in mind that the Soviet invasion had brought the Cold War deep into the subcontinent and was not therefore in our interest.
That world no longer exists and the reality of 2018 or 2019 is that the whole of South Asia sees China as a major power within the subcontinent. The challenge for 2019 and indeed for the years ahead is of how to interface with this new power within us and which effects all equations with our neighbours or will inevitably do so.
This rise of China may imply the logical deduction that viewing developments through its prism is now inescapable for India. But the lessons from our neighbourhood in 2018 are opposite to this logical deduction. In country after country in South Asia, it is a local dynamic that has asserted itself rather than a China-centric grand narrative that has risen to the surface. The recent experience of Maldives and Sri Lanka obviously pointedly illustrate this local dynamic. The elections in Nepal in end 2017 and in Bhutan this year also threw up results that underline paying greater attention to local factors rather than totalising theories about China’s ingress.
For the first time since 1990 when a multi-party system was adopted the Nepal election has created the real possibility of a stable dispensation. How much of a change this will be is illustrated by the fact that the past decade has seen 10 prime ministers in Nepal. Stability in its political architecture can only be to India’s advantage given the density of ties that exist between us and the Himalayan republic. Similarly, if the forthcoming elections in Bangladesh throw up results that further consolidate stability there it can only be to everyone’s advantage.
The two countries that appear to buck this trend are Afghanistan and Pakistan and each throws up different kinds of challenges for us. In Afghanistan the agenda being set there is reminiscent of the past despite the lip service to an Afghan-led peace process. Our ability to influence it is constrained by various factors but at this stage just understanding of and moral support for the Afghans is a big factor as they confront new and difficult choices in confronting an enemy which is exhausting its adversaries. In Pakistan the process of consolidation of democratic institutions so evident a decade ago seems weakened, at least temporarily. Nevertheless, the Kartarpur Saheb opening shows that in the India Pakistan context bilateral developments follow their own logic and can surprise even the hardened cynic. Remaining open to such opportunities even as we remain vigilant with regard to familiar threats and challenges must surely inform our approach in 2019.
Finally, South Asia as a whole. At one level the region is well connected in terms of high-level political contact. An example is that India received head of government/ head of state level visits from all SAARC countries except Pakistan during the course of 2018. The BIMSTEC summit in Nepal in August 2018 similarly augers well and focusses attention on the Bay of Bengal as a natural unit of cooperation. Whether all of this can be a substitute for the narrative value that SAARC has developed however may well be the question that we will have to centrally confront in 2019.
TCA Raghavan is a retired diplomat and currently director general, Indian Council of World Affairs
The views expressed are personal