November 11, 2006Foreign Affairs

Lax Indica

The problem with letting things in the subcontinent take their own course.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Every country in India’s immediate neighbourhood is in some sort of political crisis, and every single one of them affects India’s own internal security. Yet, even as SAARC countries routinely lambast Indian hegemony, the truth is that India has few options to address these multiple crises just across its borders. But stability in India’s immediate vicinity is both in India’s interests as well as desirable in its own right. SAARC, that one effort to foster regional cooperation, often gets into a lets-gang-up-against-India mode that ends up achieving nothing…

South Asia is in a hole despite India’s hands-off attitude to regional security. It can get worse. Besides, the United States has already secured a foothold in the subcontinent, and China is in the process of securing access both to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Further consolidation of these powers into the South Asian context will just complicate matters further. [Pax Indica for a stable South Asia]These words were written in August 2004. The crises mentioned in that post have generally gotten worse. Thanks to India. No thanks to India.

India’s attitude towards instability in all its neighbouring countries has been somewhat similar to, and perhaps an extension of, its laid back attitude towards the worsening of its own internal security environment. Apart from calling the resurgent Maoist movement, the single biggest internal security challenge”, the UPA government has done precious little. And it has gotten itself into a bind on the rise of jihadi terrorism, which is viewed almost exclusively from the perspective of the peace process’ with Pakistan. It should not be surprising, therefore, that an India that has failed to check the threats at home, is rather unlikely to be able to do anything about the crises just across it borders.

Yet, it is abundantly clear that crises in neighbouring countries—from Sri Lanka to Maldives to Nepal to even Bangladesh—require foreign intervention for their resolution. The Norwegians and Pakistanis (and possibly Americans too) in Sri Lanka, the Europeans and Americans in Maldives and the Americans and the United Nations in Nepal have gotten involved, either of their own accord, or upon invitation. They filled a vacuum left by India when it retreated from the neighbourhood over fifteen years ago. As with uncorking the Mandal genie, caving in in Jammu & Kashmir and Assam, it was the V P Singh government that was responsible for the withdrawal of Indian peacekeeping troops in Sri Lanka, the single act that changed the way Indians and their neighbours perceived power relations in the subcontinent.

A succession of weak governments and weaker leaders did nothing to change the impression that India was on the retreat, and governments, rebels and terrorists in the region could pursue their own agenda without the fear of a forceful Indian reaction. Pax Indica—which stabilised Nepal in the 1950s, liberated Bangladesh in the 1970s, thwarted a coup the Maldives in the 1980s—defaulted to Lax Indica, where the only Indian intervention was an absence of it. The absence of intervention, to turn a Rumsfeldian phrase, is intervention by absence. And not exactly the best way to shape favourable results.

At this time, many argue, India must focus on developing its own economy. Let’s focus, they contend, on the 8% GDP growth (and finding a way out of this business of reservations). Besides, getting into other peoples’ fights is never a good idea, and especially, not right now. In any case, their internal conflicts are localised and unlikely to spill over into India. This is merely self-deception. Stable neighbours and border trade is necessary to sustain economic growth, especially in the border states. As for the it’s not our business” argument: those fights have claimed the life of one former prime minister, led to one major airline hijack crisis, created another hub of jihadi terrorism—this time on the Eastern front and destabilised several districts of states bordering Nepal. And we are not even accounting for Pakistan. [Related post: Should India fight another war in Sri Lanka?]

That’s not all. The space left by India will be filled by others: the strategic geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States is already manifesting itself in the subcontinent. Even Pakistan is likely to intervene in pursuit of its own interests vis-a-vis India. It is having mixed results now—it’s cozying up to King Gyanendra didn’t work out all that well. But it sells arms to the Sri Lankan government and works with its proxies in Bangladesh. Lax Indica is exactly what they need to grow their toeholds to footholds, and footholds to strategic beach-heads. [Related links: Greg Sheridan (TNI Online) and R S Vasan (SAAG)]

India needs a fresh strategy towards its neighbours.

There is thus a clear need for India to develop foreign policy options that can bring peace and stability to the region. These options range from active diplomacy to military intervention, and must be conducted under the umbrella of an assertive foreign policy doctrine that articulates India’s intentions to act in favour of restoring stability. This approach is likely to raise hackles in South Asian capital cities, but raised hackles are normal in the subcontinent. [Pax Indica…]

Again, this is a quote from the post written over two years ago. It is all the more valid now.

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