Analysing 2012: How to lose friends and influence in India’s ‘shadow zones’

If India is to counter China and the US seeking twin “strings of pearls” of influence in the region, then that can be achieved not from muscle or money power, but from moral consistency in its actions

Within 48 hours of taking back control of Male airport from the Indian consortium GMR, Maldivian Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim touched down in Beijing. The timing of the trip was probably coincidental, but the signal to India was unambiguous. As Col. Nazim and Chinese Defence Minister Gen Liang Guanglie signed a military agreement, with China offering $3 million and more in free defence aid, the message that Maldives is looking far beyond India for its defence needs rang out. The year 2012 also saw the Maldives reach out to the U.S., who has been keen to set up a US military base (to occupy the one vacated by the UK in 1976) at the southern atoll of Gan.

The rights and wrongs of the GMR deal will be argued out in courts and at the negotiating table for some time to come. Yet, the fact that the Indian government tried to intercede, even threaten the Maldivian government, and failed, is an indicator of the loss in India’s influence in this island nation. The image of India, a 3 trillion dollar economy, attempting unsuccessfully to muscle an island nation with a GDP of just 2 billion dollars, should cause even more discomfort.

In fact, India’s waning influence was visible in February 2012 itself, when former President Nasheed was ousted by President Waheed. India was informed only after the fact, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was disastrously advised to endorse the new government immediately. When India finally raised concerns over the coup and the crackdown on protestors, and sent a special envoy to Male, the envoy landed more than 24 hours after US assistant secretary of state Robert Blake who had flown half way around the world to show Washington’s interest in events. Those days of indecision have cost the Indian government dearly. Since then, the US has kept up its voice for democracy and free elections as a way of staying engaged, managing to discuss the possibility of taking over the military base in Gan Island at the same time. While China, who has characteristically stayed out of the political situation, has engaged the new government strategically and economically to the tune of millions of dollars in deals.

The pattern of waning influence continued in other parts of India’s neighbourhood in 2012- in countries Author Robert Kaplan refers to as “shadow zones”, those that fall within India’s shadow, and those with “dynasties to which India is heir”. In Myanmar, for example, the year saw historic changes, as Aung San Suu Kyi swept by-polls to enter parliament for the first time. For the past decade China has dominated the Myanmar economy, now it is the US that is welcomed in as it lifted economic sanctions. India, its 4th largest trading partner (the balance of trade is in Myanmar’s favour) has remained at about 13 in the list of countries investing in Myanmar. On the other side of the political spectrum, India won no praise from Suu Kyi, who made a point of visiting Europe and the US before coming to New Delhi, and spoke of her “disappointment with India” for engaging the military junta in the intervening years. India, as is often the case, has fallen between two stools; and appears neither pragmatic, nor principled in the process.

In Sri Lanka, a country where India is the largest investor and trading partner, the year saw a deep schism in relations after India’s decision to vote against Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. The move was justified by the government’s growing concern over the treatment of Tamils and President Rajapakse’s refusal to keep his promises of devolution, even so it was a break from India’s past conduct with its neighbours. To begin with, India broke from precedent by voting on a “country-specific” resolution at the UN body. Next, by endorsing a US resolution against its own neighbour, it advertised how little influence its bilateral pressure has. China, in contrast, showed itself as a more dependable partner in the region by backing Lanka, while Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives followed suit.

The US resolution itself pertained to an enquiry over excesses committed by the Sri Lankan army during the last days of the LTTE in May 2009. Given that India had turned a blind eye to the operations at the time, and practically enabled Sri Lanka to finish off a terrorist like Prabhakaran, the stand at the UNHRC 3 years later was hypocritical at best. The impression that the UNHRC vote was done under pressure from Tamil Nadu’s leaders made the government in New Delhi seem weak, an impression bolstered when the state government banned a visiting sports team from Colombo, and locals attacked buses containing Sri Lankan pilgrims, without any central intervention. The message in Colombo: that India was neither a fearsome foe nor a dependable friend.

When it comes to ties with Dhaka, the UPA government has chosen to bow to the wishes of a state government as well. More than a year after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh announcing several agreements, India has been able to seal neither the Teesta agreement for water, nor the swap of land enclaves. It seems even less likely that the government will prevail on West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee to push the Bangladesh accords now, given that she is no longer a UPA ally. In Dhaka, the Hasina government will have less leeway to negotiate with elections due next year. India’s broken promises to Bangladesh are made more tragic by the earlier commitment it had made: “deliver on terror, and India would go the extra mile”. In the past 4 years, the Hasina government has delivered more than 20 wanted terrorists, including the top leadership of ULFA and Bodo groups, and conducted crackdowns on HuJI and ULFA camps inside Bangladesh. For India to cavil at delivering its end of the bargain on trade, land and water concessions now appears callow.

In other parts of the neighbourhood too, the year 2012 showed India’s loss of influence – in Nepal, despite several botched efforts, New Delhi has been unable to help with the government formation or the rewriting of the constitution. Indian investment in Nepal has fallen this year, with India losing two key bids for the Kathmandu airport, and passport printing while China has bagged the country’s biggest investment project, the West Seti hydropower plant, originally meant to supply electricity to India. Even Bhutan, a country with which India’s relations have been untroubled, took baby steps out of India’s shadow by standing for a UN security council seat on its own in 2012, a bid it lost.

2013 must then become the year India regains its lost influence amongst geographically smaller neighbours. A first step in restoring this must come from connectivity- New Delhi still doesn’t have direct flights by Indian carriers to Yangon, Islamabad or Lahore ; and Air India only started direct services to Male in November and Dhaka in December 2012. Seamless mobile connectivity within the SAARC region is a pending imperative, while visas remain the major stumbling block for closer ties and easier travel within India and its “shadow zones”

It would, of course, be unfair to conclude that India hasn’t taken large steps in investing in these countries. In 2012 alone, India extended lines of credit and infrastructural spending worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, while boosting bilateral trade with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Housing projects in Jaffna, the parliament in Kabul, the Sittwe port renovation project are all symbols of Indian efforts to reach out in the region. But if it is to counter China and the US seeking twin “strings of pearls” of influence here, then that cannot be achieved from muscle or money power, but from moral consistency in its actions.

As Kaplan writes in his latest work, ‘The Revenge of Geography’, “India is a regional power to the degree that it is entrapped by [its] geography; it is a potential great power only to the degree it can move beyond it.”

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