Readjusting to the emerging realities
Cloaked in New Delhi’s demand for inclusivity in Taliban-run Kabul and Myanmar’s ‘return to democracy’ is the fact that India has silently worked to regain some leverage in these nations
The year 2021 has been a turning point in India’s regional geopolitical fortunes. From the deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, deepening Sino-Indian border military standoff, the February coup in Myanmar, and Kabul’s collapse in August, to targeted religious violence in Kashmir and Bangladesh, multiple fires were lit in India’s northern, eastern, and western fronts.
India’s initial response to the crises in Afghanistan and Myanmar — neighbours where India has large stakes but limited capabilities — was marked by strong statements unaccompanied by actions. On Afghanistan, as president of the United Nations Security Council in August, India convened meetings to focus world attention on the war. But on the ground, it shut its Kabul embassy and struggled to evacuate citizens and Afghan allies alike. On Myanmar, India issued statements supporting democracy, but offered distant support to a divided Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leading a half-hearted process.
In both countries, India incurred costs. Not only did it lose its foothold in Kabul, but the ensuing visa fiasco — wherein India promised emergency e-visas, but then cancelled even previously granted visas and mistakenly deported Afghan parliamentarians — dented its goodwill among Afghans. The post-coup spike in cross-border drug trade, violence, and migration from Myanmar undermined an emerging political-security equilibrium in the North-East just as several battalions of the Assam Rifles were being repositioned to plug gaps along the China border. This led to the killing of Indian soldiers in Manipur, and of civilians in Nagaland, during a counter-insurgency operation gone wrong.
Still, India’s approach is shifting as 2021 comes to end. Cloaked in New Delhi’s demand for inclusivity in Taliban-run Kabul and Myanmar’s “return to democracy at the earliest” is the fact that over the last few months India has silently worked to regain some of what it lost — leverage.
This means that India has the intent and the toolkit to shape behaviour of the most violent authoritarian regimes in its region, using a mix of coercion and rewards. This doesn’t mean that India expects these countries to become democratic. But it does imply that New Delhi is serious about internal political balance, which it believes could help Kabul and Naypyidaw arrest their spiralling internal wars and economic hardship. Internal balance, in turn, could also prevent these countries from becoming excessively dependent on Pakistan and China.
India’s support to Myanmar migrants, after initial preference for forced repatriation, afforded it an opportunity to better understand anti-junta resistance. Cross-border humanitarian support networks in Mizoram coupled with substantial diaspora funding explains why the Chin community can endure and counter brutal military crackdowns. India has the capability, and the intent in certain decision-making quarters, to recalibrate the parameters of these cross-border networks from the humanitarian-only to the kinetic domain.
Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Myanmar, then, was not meant to humour the junta. It was to signal India’s seriousness about border security and generate some anti-China mileage when Naypyidaw is under severe international pressure and facing stiff resistance on the ground. This aspect becomes apparent in India’s statement that openly brings up the Manipur attack and underscores that both sides “reiterated their commitment to ensure that their respective territories would not be allowed to be used for any activities inimical to the other”.
Seemingly anodyne and previously used, such expressions offer diplomatic cover for messy realities i.e., transborder rebels operate on both sides of the border with or without State approval. In 2020, when India used a similar language, it was accompanied by limited military action to deny manoeuvering space to the Arakan Army cadres fighting the Tatmadaw in Chin state and clandestinely crossing over into India. Today, no such action is being taken against Chin rebels, even though the Chin National Front’s “Camp Victoria” at the Mizoram border is a potent hub of anti-junta resistance. Viewed in combination with Shringla’s meetings with National League for Democracy figures and desire to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the signal is clear: India doesn’t want to add to the junta’s woes, but its patience is running thin.
In Afghanistan, Indian officials were quick to readjust to the emerging realities. Apart from New Delhi’s visible engagement with the Taliban in Doha and Moscow, support for the United Nations resolution to ease the flow of humanitarian aid, restarting direct flights to Kabul, and delivering two tonnes of medical aid, India held multiple behind-the-scenes conversations with the Taliban to find common geopolitical ground.
Parallel to the Taliban’s souring of ties with Pakistan (witnessed in the recent border shelling between the two sides in Kunar province), determined Indian officials have been trying to create space for policy maneuver and scope for influence within the Taliban. For example, it is not usual for the Taliban to publicly thank India for delivering aid and calling it a “vital” regional power, exactly when criticising Pakistan for interference. This doesn’t mean India is conferring formal recognition to the Taliban. But it is unlikely to remain isolated from Kabul, as Islamabad desires.
Whether and how India capitalises on these openings in 2022 needs to be seen. Geopolitical realpolitik is often married to domestic politics and ideology. A tactical alliance between India’s dominant Hindu-Right and Afghanistan’s militant-Islamists to counter Pakistan for diametrically opposed reasons is possible. But it is likely to occur on the geopolitical backstage under secrecy, creating limits for frontstage rapprochement.
There’s no such ideological impediment preventing frontstage interaction with the Burman-Buddhist junta. Instead of securing Myanmar’s return to democracy (a pipe dream), if India secures exile for Aung San Suu Kyi (unlikely) and helps bringing key resistance figures to the negotiations table (possible) in coordination with ASEAN and Japan, it might partially succeed in containing the fires and checking, if not check-mating, China’s influence in its east.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London, and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal
The views expressed are personal