A fortnight ago, the government of Nepal took the unprecedented step of cancelling the visit of the country’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India and recalling its ambassador in New Delhi. Around the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to Lumbini. These political developments are symbolic of the frosty relationship that India and Nepal currently share thanks to New Delhi’s high-handed and unimaginative policy towards Nepal. More worryingly, the Nepal-related developments are actually just the beginning of a larger story, of how New Delhi’s spectacularly unimaginative diplomacy is alienating the region.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s neighbourhood policy, which began exceptionally well with Mr. Modi’s glamorous tour of the region soon after his equally glamorous swearing-in, has not just managed to make more enemies than friends in the region in such a surprisingly short span of time, but has also gone, in letter and spirit, against the eloquent promises made by the party in its election manifesto: “BJP believes that political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential for South Asia’s growth and development. The Congress-led UPA [United Progressive Alliance] has failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold. India and its neighbours have drifted apart. The absence of statecraft has never been felt so acutely as today.”
Save for Bhutan and perhaps Bangladesh, much of South Asia has major grievances against New Delhi today. Clearly, then, there is something fundamentally wrong with the BJP-led government’s neighbourhood diplomacy. If so, what is it that New Delhi has done to deserve the ire of its neighbours? While New Delhi’s not-so-friendly relationship with Islamabad is unsurprising, what has provoked the other countries, some of which figured very high on Mr. Modi’s bilateral priorities, to suddenly come out openly against India?
Nosedive in Nepal
One of the major reasons for India’s growing unpopularity in the regional capitals is its increasing tendency to interfere in the domestic affairs of its smaller neighbours, either citing security implications or to offset the target country’s unfriendly strategic choices. Take the case of Nepal, for instance. New Delhi was deeply upset with the Constitution passed by the Nepalese Constituent Assembly in September last year. Its unhappiness resulted from the legitimate feeling among the people of Terai, especially the Madhesis and Tharus, living close to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, that they have been short-changed by the country’s new Constitution. But a substantive political argument was thwarted by poor diplomatic style.
The problematic part was twofold: the manner in which New Delhi publicly expressed its displeasure with Nepal’s sovereign act of Constitution-drafting; and the manner in which India allegedly abetted the Madhesi blockade of essential supplies to Nepal. In response to the blockade, Kathmandu complained to the United Nations, prompting its Secretary-General to highlight “Nepal’s right of free transit, as a landlocked nation as well as for humanitarian reasons”. India’s Nepal ‘diplomacy’ did not stop there: in the past week, New Delhi is widely reported to have played a role in attempting to topple the K.P. Oli regime in Kathmandu.
While the current Nepalese Constitution is far from perfect, it is for the various political factions in Nepal to debate and resolve their differences: it’s none of New Delhi’s business to thrust good sense upon Kathmandu. Second, aiding the imposition of a blockade on Nepal, which had large-scale humanitarian impact, is unwarranted coercion against a friendly neighbour. Third, playing even a minor role to topple a democratically elected regime in Nepal is unmistakably reprehensible.
Meddling in Sri Lanka
If New Delhi’s Mission Kathmandu was both a failure and distasteful, its ‘subtle interference’ in Sri Lanka in the run-up to the island nation’s elections last year has set a dangerous precedent. New Delhi had proactively promoted the coalition led by Maithripala Sirisena to defeat the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa whose anti-Tamil record and pro-China tilt was resented by New Delhi. Several reports at the time claimed that Colombo had asked New Delhi to withdraw the Research and Analysis Wing’s station chief in Sri Lanka for allegedly working to ensure the victory of the anti-Rajapaksa coalition.
While involving ourselves in regime changes in the neighbourhood is a terrible idea in the longer run, we must ask whether the regime change in Colombo has actually prompted it to declare itself pro-India. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while visiting India last year, removed any such misgivings by saying, “Sri Lanka is neither pro-India nor pro-China.” The new government in Colombo has been vigorously courting Beijing for economic and infrastructural assistance, something it knows fully well that New Delhi can only provide in small measure.
Riling the Maldives regime
Maldives, yet another traditional ally of ours, has also been resenting the Indian reactions to its domestic political developments. New Delhi, being highly critical of how the pro-India former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed was jailed by the current regime under terrorism charges, publicly stated that “we are concerned at recent developments in the Maldives, including the arrest and manhandling of former President Nasheed”. The Maldivian government responded by saying it hoped that India would “adhere to the principle of Panchsheel and will not intervene in domestic politics of Maldives”.
During External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Maldives in October last year, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s office issued a sharply worded statement that his “government will not tolerate foreign parties interfering with the country’s domestic issues”. Furthermore, Maldives also strengthened its engagement with China, which has gladly been offering economic and infrastructural assistance to Male. The Chinese presence has made the South Block sit up and take notice: New Delhi has since been silent about Maldives’s domestic affairs, and signed a number of bilateral agreements during Mr. Yameen’s visit to New Delhi last month.
In June 2013, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, then in the Opposition, had argued that “the UPA government’s foreign policy is so weak that it is not only large countries like China, but even smaller countries like Maldives giving India a hard time.” In its overenthusiasm to control small neighbours, the BJP-led government has only made India’s relations with them worse than ever before. When will the BJP understand that muscular tactics cannot replace mature diplomacy?
Importance of subtle diplomacy
The argument here is not that India has absolutely no stake in what happens in Nepal, Sri Lanka or Maldives. Indeed, the domestic politics and foreign relations of its neighbours do, and should, concern India. But does that mean we have the right to bully them to toe our line? More importantly, is it in our own national interest to push them around the way we often do? Let’s recall Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore’s ill-advised tweet referring to the Indian Army’s operations inside Myanmar: “Indian Army strikes into the heart of militants. #56inchRocks”, and Myanmar’s furious response: “Every country must respect the other country’s sovereignty.”
Similarly, India’s public statements about Nepal’s Constitution have been neither smart nor diplomatic. The Ministry of External Affairs’ statement on Nepal, that “we had repeatedly cautioned the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in these regions,” was undoubtedly patronising, and undiplomatic. The joint statement issued by the EU-India Summit, in March 2016, on “the need for a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining constitutional issues in a time-bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth” also irked Nepal, which reacted by saying: “The Government of Nepal calls on all to fully respect the sovereign and democratic rights of the people of Nepal and refrain from making uncalled for statements. The Government and people of Nepal are fully capable of resolving their issues themselves within the framework of the constitution.” Thanks to our unimaginative diplomacy with Nepal, Kathmandu today has an ever stronger bilateral partnership with China.
The lesson, therefore, from Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka is clear: New Delhi should not behave like the Modern-day Raj, and Indian diplomats appointed to these countries should stop thinking they are modern-day Viceroys!
Moreover, by intervening in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics decades ago, first by propping up the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and then by sending military forces to ‘keep peace’ there, we ended up creating bigger problems for ourselves. We should learn our lesson from this history and stay away from interfering in the messy domestic politics of our neighbours.
While it is true that India’s smaller neighbours do try, from time to time, to play the China card, the response to that is neither arrogance nor regime change, but creative, patient diplomacy. It is also important to recognise that India simply does not have the material capacity to engage in a zero-sum game with China in the region. That realisation alone should convince us to use sophisticated forms of diplomacy along with catering to the infrastructural needs of the region in whatever way we can.
The BJP-led government, in complete disregard of its own earlier promises and in a manner that could hurt India’s national interest in the longer run, has also been reducing the already limited amount of aid and loans to the neighbouring states. A recent Parliamentary Standing Committee report on External Affairs alarmingly noted: “There has been a sizeable reduction in aid and loans to countries in our immediate neighbourhood such as Maldives, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The Committee contend that the quantum of aid to a country under this head is viewed as a reflection of India’s diplomatic engagements with its immediate and extended neighbourhood.”
If we are unable to maintain strategic ties with our neighbours by catering to their economic and infrastructural requirements, let’s at least not alienate them with our undiplomatic and bullying behaviour.
(This article was originally published in The Hindu on May 18, 2016. Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.)