Relevance : GS Paper II (International Relations)
Theme of the article
India must shed its zero-sum style foreign policy-making, and work towards South Asian integration.
The South Asia problem
- South Asia is one of the world’s least integrated regions, and India is one of the world’s least regionally-integrated major powers.
- There are structural impediments (posed by both India and its neighbours) in fostering regional integration, the most significant handicap is India’s ideational disinclination towards its neighbourhood.
- Successive regimes have considered the neighbourhood as an irritant and challenge, not an opportunity.
- Seldom have India’s policies displayed a sense of belonging to the region or a desire to work with the neighbourhood for greater integration and cooperation.
- Today, we have become even more transactional, impatient and small-minded towards our neighbourhood which has, as a result, restricted our space for manoeuvre in the regional geopolitical scheme of things.
- India’s neighbourhood policy is at a critical juncture: while its past policies have ensured a steady decline in its influence and goodwill in the region, the persistent absence of a coherent and well-planned regional policy will most definitely ensure that it eventually slips out of India’s sphere of influence.
The present scenario
- Government’s neighbourhood policy began exceptionally well with Mr. Modi reaching out to the regional capitals and making grand foreign policy commitments.
- But almost immediately, it seemed to lose a sense of diplomatic balance, for instance, when it tried to interfere with the Constitution-making process in Nepal and was accused of trying to influence electoral outcomes in Sri Lanka.
- While India’s refugee policy went against its own traditional practices, it was found severely wanting on the Rohingya question, and seemed clueless on how to deal with the political crisis in the Maldives.
- The arrival of an India-friendly Ibrahim Mohamed Solih regime in Male has brought much cheer, and the return of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Sri Lankan Prime Minister is to India’s advantage too.
- Nepal has reached out to India to put an end to the acrimony that persisted through 2015 to 2017.
- Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh are also positively disposed towards India, though the relationship with Pakistan continues to be testy and directionless.
What should India do?
- India must shed its aggression and deal with tricky situations with far more diplomatic subtlety and finesse. The ability of diplomacy lies in subtly persuading the smaller neighbour to accept an argument rather than forcing it to, which is bound to backfire.
- It must be kept in mind that meddling in the domestic politics of neighbour countries is a recipe for disaster, even when invited to do so by one political faction or another. Preferring one faction or regime over another is unwise in the longer term.
- India must not fail to follow up on its promises to its neighbours. It has a terrible track record in this regard.
- There is no point in competing with China where China is at an advantage vis-à-vis India. India simply does not have the political, material or financial wherewithal to outdo China in building infrastructure. Hence India must invest where China falls short, especially at the level of institution-building and the use of soft power.
- India must invest a great deal more in soft power promotion. To begin with, India could expand the scope and work of the South Asian University (SAU).
- While reimagining its neighbourhood policy, New Delhi must also look for convergence of interests with China in the Southern Asian region spanning from Afghanistan to Nepal to Sri Lanka. There are several possible areas of convergence, including counter terrorism, regional trade and infrastructure development.
- There needs to be better regional trading arrangements.
- Several of India’s border States have the capacity to engage in trading arrangements with neighbouring counties. This should be made easier by the government by way of constructing border infrastructure and easing restrictions on such border trade.
- There should be more attempts at forging multilateral arrangements, including by resurrecting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
India’s foreign policy planners need to reimagine the country’s neighbourhood policy before it is too late. New Delhi has a real opportunity today to recalibrate its neighbourhood relations.