India and its neighbours
India seems to have discovered the formulae for living in harmony with neighbours
For the first two-thirds of India’s existence as an independent nation, it managed to tackle the pulls and pressures exerted by the two poles of a divided world with a fair amount of success. However, its relationships with the countries abutting its borders fell well short of the optimum for much of that time. As the Republic begins its 60th year and adapts to a world still unsettled after the end of the Cold War, it appears to have discovered the formulae for li
ving in harmony with its neighbours.
In the debate over India’s interaction with its immediate environment, attention is usually focussed on the relationships with the rest of South Asia. While the country’s bilateral connections with each of its neighbours have specific complications, the difference in size between the smaller countries of the subcontinent and the giant in their midst is a common problematic factor. New Delhi has often felt frustrated by its neighbours’ failure to comprehend the compulsions that drive a large nation. The rest of the subcontinent has, of course, regarded India as the regional bully. These mutually antagonistic perspectives are finally being discarded. The transformation has been wrought not through the development of the necessary diplomatic tools alone. The shifts in the international order have forced the countries of South Asia to adjust to the presence of one another.
The change in the equation between India and its biggest neighbour, China, has had a positive impact, though not directly, on its relationships with the rest. There is not much evidence to show that the People’s Republic has used the considerable influence it wields over some South Asian countries to make them change their attitudes towards the subcontinental giant.
Beijing has not forced New Delhi to change its ways either. But the improvement in the bilateral relations between them has served as a model. In the course of the interaction with a power greater than itself, India has been sensitised to the existential concerns of the smaller countries around it. The Sino-Indian exchanges have also led to the recognition of the important principle that differences over certain issues should not preclude the development of bilateral ties in other areas.
Fifty years after the boundary dispute arose, the Indian public appears to be coming around to the view that it was unnecessarily allowed to spin out of control. That does not translate into a willingness to concede control of any part of Arunachal Pradesh or to an acceptance of the loss of Aksai Chin. However, as the Special Representatives of the two countries try to arrive at a final delineation of the border, more and more people in this country appear to be coming round to the view that the relationship with the People’s Republic should not be held hostage to this dispute.
Of the three Ts that figure prominently in Sino-Indian ties, the question of Tibet has lost much of its salience. While the Dalai Lama’s presence in Dharamsala continues to be an irritant, there is near-unanimity of opinion within this country that Tibetans must make their own peace with the People’s Republic. The impressive rate of growth in trade and investment between the two countries has made a marked contribution to the change in outlook. The target of $40 billion in bilateral trade by 2010 does look achievable. That India and China are exploring the possibilities of working together with other countries, especially Russia, to strengthen multipolarity at the international level shows how far they have moved away from the adversarial positions they used to take. The recently-launched strategic partnership holds real promise.
It took quite some effort on New Delhi’s part to convince Islamabad that the principle underlying the Sino-Indian rapprochement could apply to their interaction as well. For Pakistan, this involved a fundamental change in outlook since the Kashmir issue was something more than a territorial dispute. Through its containment of a 15-year-long insurgency, India appears to have substantiated its argument that violence will not produce a solution. The international community’s abhorrence of jihadist militancy and the adverse impact the sponsorship of terrorism had on its own internal security and economic well being were the other factors that made Pakistan change direction.
Given the bitterly-estranged-twins nature of the India-Pakistan relationship, the deus ex machina of power politics could not have been the only factor that brought about a change in attitudes. The political leaderships in both co
untries have displayed vision and a sense of pragmatism by deciding to address the more complex and less problematic issues on parallel tracks simultaneously.
While there has been no real progress on the hard issues in contention, the utility of the new approach cannot be doubted. The mechanisms put in place to enhance people-to-people contacts have worked. Forward-looking forces in the two countries have become acquainted with each other, and through their interaction they have generated a serious drive towards détente.
In speaking about the India-Pakistan equation, it is too early to drop the caveat that the process of rapprochement could end and even be reversed if there is another spurt in cross-border terrorism. But there is a growing belief that difficult issues could become more resolvable by dealing intelligently with the less intractable problems.
At the same time, it needs to be said that the official-level talks, directed by the respective Foreign Secretaries, cannot go on indefinitely without producing results. The trust deficit has not been overcome completely. There are enough die-hard hate-mongers on both sides of the border who look for opportunities to fan dormant hostilities.
Over much of the three and a half decades Bangladesh has been in existence, its approach towards India has fluctuated with changes in government. Relations have appeared to be on the upswing whenever one section of the political class has been in power, only to deteriorate when the other section of the same class or a military-dominated administration has taken the reins. There are some signs that a paradigm shift could take place in the not-too-distant future. Dhaka appears to have realised that the country ringing its territory on three sides could be a lucrative market for its natural resources. The imaginative decision taken by the Manmohan Singh Government to relax restrictions on imports from Bangladesh could over time enhance the pace of change.
However, an accurate assessment of India-Bangladesh relations might be possible only after an elected government takes office in late 2008. The systemic overhaul underway could unravel if the current caretaker government oversteps its brief. The resultant political turmoil could profoundly affect on Bangladesh’s relations with India.
Nepal and Sri Lanka
After trial and error, Indian diplomacy appears to have finally got it right in the arena of relations with both Nepal and Sri Lanka. While supporting the process of democratisation in what might soon become an ex-kingdom, New Delhi has ensured that its hand is not too discernible. As for its relations with Sri Lanka, India’s firm opposition to the LTTE’s terrorism, support for the integrity of the island nation, and sympathy for the democratic demands of the Tamil people represent a policy package that is principled as well as practical. In respect to these two countries and Bhutan, India has shown that ‘Big Brother’ can be a benevolent sibling.
Kesava Menon is Associate Editor, The Hindu.
Independent India at 60