A RELUCTANT REGIONAL POWER
The New Indian Express
Tuesday 13 August 2013
At almost every international or regional conference, seminar or workshop one attends, the recurring refrain from the foreign delegates is that even as India is historically poised to play a major role in the region, India seems reluctant to seize the moment. These are the assessments of not only those who are our immediate neighbours but also of others who come from countries further away and who have long term ties and interests with India . It becomes imperative, therefore, for us to examine whether their analyses of India’s policies towards its neighbours and regional counterparts are correct. While it is true that in recent times India has developed greater influence in south east Asia, it is also true that India’s support is sought by major global players to fashion the future geo-strategic balances in south east Asia and further. Not only has the United States declared India as its “strategic partner” to counter the rising power and influence of China in the region but also the two countries have projected their allied interests in the rebalancing of power in the region. There are many intricate issues that underline India’s foreign policy and it’s not possible to examine each in detail here. Notwithstanding those countries that do not have favourable relationship with India, even the countries that do have a favourable disposition often turn critical about India’s stand on issues and policies towards them and those that affect them directly or indirectly.
Sri Lankan politics and policies during the turbulent years of ethnic conflict and the present time of rebuilding itself have greatly concerned India. During the conflict years Sri Lanka turned to India, as its immediate and influential neighbour, for all forms of co-operation. After the conflict came to an end with the defeat of the LTTE in the Fourth Eelam war, while the mainstream establishment continued to view India as a friend, there were rumblings from other elements within the establishment that feared growing Indian influence. Flushed with their victory in the war and the decimation of the LTTE and the destruction of the Eelam dream permanently, many in Sri Lanka changed their earlier view about India and strident voices have been
rising about India’s role in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan establishment has diversely wanted India to play a greater role as well as to keep its hands off. With due reverence to the principle of sovereignty, India has reiterated throughout the ethnic conflict and subsequently too , that it was never in favour of the creation of a new independent state in the island but completely acquiesced with the principle of devolution of power to the Tamils to end the ethnic disparity. The Sri Lankan establishment, on the other hand, has spoken in different voices regarding the extent to which it will permit India to be involved. That is to say, while India’s aid for infrastructure development in the fractured North is accepted; Sri Lanka has different thoughts about the 13th Amendment and prefers India to be a passive bystander. India merely desires that Sri Lanka adhere to its commitment to provide limited autonomy to Tamil dominated North and Eastern provinces and find an acceptable long term solution to the imbalances of power sharing between the ethnic groups. However , India is seen by many in the Sri Lankan majority as “interfering “ and by many of the Tamils as “betraying”. Both these emotional judgments are based on their personal frustrations and aspirations which have stemmed from events that have happened solely on their soil. Therefore , for members of both sides to imply that India is reluctant to play a greater role suggests that the role they envisage for India is one wherein their personal aspirations are endorsed and approved by India .
Bangladesh’s history books will find it hard to expunge India’s role in the creation of the nation in 1971.Yet it seems that somewhere in the course of history Bangladesh has developed dissatisfaction with India. One of the many major concerns for Bangladesh has been the sharing of the waters of the Ganges River. A subject matter that has for 35 years been extremely emotional in Bangladesh and which has affected the eastern states in India , even after several bilateral agreements and rounds of talks has not been resolved in a manner that has appeased Bangladesh . The result is a deficit of trust where the indication has been that India being a larger nation in size has staked a larger claim. Perhaps the underlying problem lies not so much in the water-sharing process but in the information-sharing process about the use and the principles of distribution of the waters by India. Despite a comprehensive
bilateral treaty signed in 1996 which has established a 30 year water-sharing arrangement, one often hears in Bangladesh voices about the “unfairness” of the arrangement. Bangladesh, which would like to see India play a greater role on several other matters concerning the region which have direct impact upon it, prefers that India play a minor role in all direct bilateral matters. There are several other issues where Bangladesh prefers that India stay away but it also expects India “to do something” and support Bangladesh in matters which affect it directly. One of these issues is the Chinese proposal and graded execution of diversion of water to the water- starved regions of northern China which would result in irreparable damage to the lower riparian states and chiefly Bangladesh.
Nepal which has very close ties with India is currently caught in the vortex of uncertainty and inquietude. During the bloody and turbulent transition from the monarchy up to its present form of desired democracy, the Royalists on the one hand and the Maoists and other political parties on the other have been dissatisfied by India’s responses to the events as they unfolded. India’s slow and measured responses during the period of turmoil were confused with unwillingness to take a definite stand for one side or the other. Keen to see proper governance return to Nepal, India has encouraged the resolution of the issues of ethnic federalism. Analysts and the establishments in Nepal, however, have misconstrued this as attempts by India to impose its will upon the people and parties of Nepal.
India is the largest regional provider for the humanitarian and reconstruction of Afghanistan. India has invested more than $ 2 billion in Afghan infrastructure, which includes highways and hospitals and rural electricity projects. India is also helping in the rebuilding of the police forces, judiciary and diplomatic services in Afghanistan. Pakistan and China have been crying foul about India’s intention alleging that India seeks to establish its influence in Afghanistan and benefit post withdrawal of American troops. Strategists and academics in Afghanistan, however, often express hope of an India-Iran-Afghanistan cooperation that would benefit all the three countries and keep Chinese and Russian influence at bay.
It is obvious that the size of India, both geographical and economic, causes serious concerns among our neighbours. The fear is further amplified with China’s allegations that India treats Bhutan as a “protectorate” and has been interfering with the elections in Bhutan. China also perpetuates the myth that India behaves as a hegemonic power in the region and uses it to spread its own influence among India’s neighbours. However, while addressing many regional issues, India has been displaying sensitivity to the national interests of its neighbouring countries. Whether it is called upon to deal with the internal dynamics of Maldives or continue bilateral relations with the progressively evolving military junta of Myanmar, India has shown its ability to follow the accepted principles of statecraft. Those that consider careful assessment and considered action as a mark of reluctance to be a regional power, it is necessary for them to understand how seriously India takes its responsibility to maintain regional peace and stability.