After catching all political pundits and trackers of his political career on the wrong foot by his against-the-grain invitation to leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) nations for his inaugural last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now made things easier by returning to a more predictable and shambolic neighbourhood policy. Like many other features of his political career, this facet of his foreign policy also began with a flourish but was soon plagued by lack of architecture to give body to the headlines. As a result, India faces isolation in the region that is perhaps unparalleled in extent. Unless this is recognised and followed up by course correction, it could have a domino effect and roll back gains made in the past 18 months.
During his recent visit to the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister’s Office was caught by surprise when the Nepalese in London protested on India’s Nepal policy. “Respect the sovereignty of landlocked countries” and “Remove illegal blockade in Nepal” were among the slogans shouted in Mr Modi’s audible range as he stepped out of 10 Downing Street. Banners also beseeched Britain not to “sign any trade deals with India” if New Delhi did not mend its ways. Reports indicate that while the PMO expected protests from other quarters — the “left-liberal” groups protesting at Mr Modi’s handling of Gujarat riots and prosecution of those accused of the violence, and Sikh groups protesting the unhurried pursuit of the 1984 riots cases against the accused even after the Bharatiya Janata Party government assumed office — they had no prior input regarding the plans of Nepalese groups in the UK.
Because the PMO is essentially focused on interest areas, and even obsessions of Mr Modi, there is often a tendency to ignore those that are not of high priority. Since the entire focus in the run-up to the UK visit was to make the Wembley Stadium event a grand success and achieve progress on bilateral — political, security and trade — issues, there was no monitoring of other potential disgruntled groups. Missing out on the plan of the Nepali protesters is indicative of the extent of self-fixation of the Modi regime. But while such adulation can be understood while assessing events like those at Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, such an approach on diplomatic matters indicates a domineering attitude towards other nations, especially smaller neighbours. India has for long been perceived as one with a self-image of the Big Brother. This perception has been sharpest under leaders with either a strong personality, like Indira Gandhi, or when they secured an overwhelming mandate, like Rajiv Gandhi. Because of his political past, his ideological affiliations and the stunning nature of the mandate he received, these fears returned to the neighbourhood when Mr Modi became Prime Minister.
Though he addressed these fears with his initial outreach, Mr Modi’s personality came in the way and he used the carrot and stick approach with Pakistan. The invitation to his swearing-in was the carrot and the stick was the one-on-one interaction with Nawaz Sharif in the course of which he reportedly heaped disdain for which the Pakistani leader was scorned back home. The basic question in India’s Pakistan policy in the past year and a half is whether dialogue is to be continued or not. If talks are to remain in deep freeze till Pakistan either gives up promoting terror activities or actively pursues cases against 26/11 accused, why should there be meetings at the top level on the sidelines of major international summits, like in Ufa.
While India’s Pakistan policy demonstrates lack of clarity, the Nepal policy has been completely flawed. The error that resulted in the protest in London is rooted in the initial view that relations with the Himalayan neighbour will be smoothest because of a “Hindu connect”. Overzealousness in the wake of the earthquake, and the opposition to that, should have been a warning that though it could make suggestions, India must not be seen as overbearing. Mr Modi was aware of this initially but was circumspect and, consequently, he did not say that the Constitution needed to inclusive too, maintaining only that it should be “democratic, federal and republic”.
When he could have, Mr Modi did not make the case for such a Constitution, and when India suggested that there was need to provide more rights to Madhesis and Tharus, it was too late and the Indian stance was seen as interference. India’s doublespeak on the blockade alienated the people besides the regime, and this was a monumental failure. As a result, bringing Indo-Nepal ties back on the rails will be a huge challenge.
Trouble also brews on the eastern front with India’s cow vigilantism being a matter of concern in Dhaka. This stems from the crackdown on informal trade of non-milk producing cattle between the two countries. Consequently, rising beef prices and non-availability of leather for Bangladeshi tanneries are causes of major concern. In bilateral relationships, give and take must be an essential component. After Dhaka handed over Anup Chetia, New Delhi, too, needs to make concessions that are not tough to yield. But because cattle-smuggling is central to BJP’s domestic concerns — even with Pakistan — ties between India and Bangladesh are ruffled.
India’s ties with Myanmar, too, are under the spotlight because after Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s victory there will be need to revive ties with her party. Initially a great supporter of the National League for Democracy, India became lukewarm towards her campaign for democracy and instead engaged with the military leadership. Though key powers still remain with the Army, India has a challenge on hand. A graver problem exists in the Maldives where India has been almost clueless about internal developments and in the process Chinese influence on the island nation is increasing. Grand diplomatic flourishes and Mr Modi’s participation in global summits are understandable, but the neighbourhood cannot be neglected.
The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984.
(Courtesy : The Asian Age)