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Home / Opinion / India is a victim of negative neighbourhood politics

India is a victim of negative neighbourhood politics

The ruling classes in neighbouring countries, like Nepal and Bangladesh, have to take enlightened decisions on optimal relations with India. The burden is not on New Delhi alone

opinion Updated: May 11, 2017 15:18 IST
Kanwal Sibal
Kanwal Sibal
Virtually all our neighbours support China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project and its entry into Saarc despite India’s position (File Photo)
Virtually all our neighbours support China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project and its entry into Saarc despite India’s position (File Photo)(HT)

Many believe that we have not managed relations with our neighbours well enough. Is the fault mostly ours? We need to look at our neighbourhood policy — including that under the Modi government — more objectively, keeping some pertinent points in mind.

Smaller countries feel insecure as neighbours to a big power. To avoid subservience and maintain their separate identity, they are prone to assert their independence, sometimes for its own sake. They will seek the support of external powers as a counterweight. Concerns about their domestic politics being manipulated and a client leadership put in place by the bigger neighbour impedes a fuller relationship.

Mutually beneficial economic ties are often sacrificed because of negative political thinking. Smaller countries also have unrealistic expectations, as they believe that the bigger country should be generous and not demand reciprocity, and as generosity is not defined in scale and generous acts are quickly forgotten, the problem of unmet expectations endures.

In India’s case, all elements of this syndrome are at play, plus some additional vexatious ones. Our neighbours being part of the Indian civilisational space, with deep ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious connections, they fear smothering by India. They look for ways to differentiate themselves and resist India’s embrace. Wooing them much more, as some advocate, could well increase resistance depending on their internal politics, the balance between various factions and relations with third countries that court them. As ethnic groups straddle India’s frontiers with others, this latent source of friction erupts at times.

India is constantly accused of interference in the internal affairs of neighbours. While India cannot altogether stand aloof and has to pay legitimate politics within diplomatic bounds to protect its interests, India’s interference is exaggerated to serve domestic politics.

Two of India’s neighbours were part of historical India, with separation occurring in bloodshed, hate and religious hostility. This legacy of partition survives in Pakistan’s case and fuels its unremitting animosity towards us, of which terrorism and Kashmir is an expression. An increasingly dysfunctional state like Pakistan effectively run by generals and increasingly wracked by religious extremism and terrorism cannot make peace with India. No amount of dialogue will change this reality. The flip-flops of successive Indian governments in their Pakistan policy, including the initial outreach by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nawaz Sharif, his Pakistani counterpart, and his tough posture towards Islamabad subsequently, denotes the intractable nature of our Pakistan problem, not merely our inconsistency.

Pakistan was the first to bring in a big external actor — the United States —to acquire capacities to confront India. We have to take into account the US factor even today in dealing with Pakistan. The China-Pakistan nexus has become a huge challenge for us, with China going much further than the US by equipping Pakistan with strategic capabilities, and backing Pakistan’s cause against India in diverse international forums.

But it is not Pakistan alone that uses the China card against us.

Nepal has done this traditionally and continues to do so to supposedly escape India’s total domination. It has long resisted water resource cooperation with India that is so clearly in the interest of both countries, and now has given China big openings in this sector. The attitude of the Nepalese ruling class towards India is fickle. Modi’s two earlier visits to Nepal enthused the Nepalese but the disruption of oil supplies because of turmoil in the Terai arising from constitutional issues created a deep anti-Indian backlash.

With the change of government in Kathmandu the situation has improved for us, but this a reprieve till the next crisis because the fundamental attitudes of Nepal’s hill elite towards India are deeply embedded, for which China provides cover. Virtually all our neighbours support China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project and its entry into Saarc despite India’s position.

Under Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and the settlement of land boundary and maritime disputes, ties with Dhaka have improved remarkably. With anti-India insurgent activity on Bangladesh soil eliminated and transit arrangements advanced, relations have entered a new phase. The Opposition is already accusing her of a sell-out to India, which demonstrates the complexities India faces in forging better neighbourly ties.

The ruling classes in our neighbours have to take enlightened decisions on optimal relations with India. The burden is not on India alone. Bhutan provides an excellent example of a country that has preserved its unique personality and independence while maintaining close ties with India in self-interest without the need for external balancing that undermines India’s security and other interests.

Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary

The views expressed are personal

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