Map of South Asia: iStock
Map of South Asia: iStock

India seeks to forge ahead with sub-regional cooperation and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) minus Pakistan in view of the inability of the “consensus principle” of the regional forum to deliver on New Delhi’s desire for regional connectivity.

At the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in November 2015, New Delhi played a leading role and introduced connectivity proposals on road, rail and power (electricity) that were met with resistance from Pakistan and failed to take off. However, New Delhi must revisit its neighborhood policies, which have become overly security-sensitive and inclined more toward hard power. primarily to address perceived threats from Beijing and Islamabad. In this context, history can serve as a useful guide as to how India can successfully engage its South Asian neighbors.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, had a fresh perspective on global political issues, which allowed him to address Cold War-related concerns, and he wanted his country to be seen as one of the leaders of the Non-Alignment Movement with a view to shaping international public opinion on numerous issues ranging from decolonization and underdevelopment to disarmament. However, he followed a traditional security-centric approach toward India’s neighboring countries, retaining the protectorate arrangements of British India with Nepal and Bhutan.

Second, by prioritizing world politics over regional issues, the Nehruvian approach to foreign policy reduced the scope for stronger regional ties. Third, territorial disputes with neighbors and border wars with Pakistan and China following India’s independence persuaded New Delhi to nurture a narrow security-driven view of the region. Nehru’s attempts at pursuing friendly ties with China failed with the collapse of Panchasheela agreement (1954) and culminated in the border war in 1962.

From New Delhi’s perspective, Chinese assistance to Pakistan in building up the latter’s military and nuclear capabilities and the possible emergence of a China-Pakistan axis in South Asia and the Indian Ocean forced India to maintain a narrow perspective on security. Such a security-centric approach by India led to discomfort and anxiety among its small South Asian neighbors who in turn very often resorted to playing the Chinese card to balance their relations with New Delhi.

India’s hard-power failure

Notwithstanding the arguments of some scholars that Nehru was compelled to decide in favor of projecting India’s hard power along the border in the shape of a forward policy (including measures such as the establishment of military outposts and launching aggressive patrols in the disputed India-China border areas) to deter Beijing from adopting an aggressive posture, the decision did not ultimately work in New Delhi’s favor. Instead, India could have resorted to its soft-power capacities and diplomatic strength, which could have earned it the support of many dominant powers and developing countries, to deter China from launching a military offensive. On the other hand, resorting to a hard power approach would only provoke China, resulting in the border war of 1962.

In a similar vein, India under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership conceived the Operation Brasstacks in 1987 in an attempt to dissuade Pakistan from engaging in proxy wars and resorted to the projection of hard power through a massive mobilization of the Indian Army in Rajasthan near the Pakistan border. The operation failed to achieve its desired objectives and prompted Pakistan to accelerate its nuclear weapons program with Chinese assistance.

Of late, India’s sense of victory after launching surgical strikes across the India-Pakistan border has not reduced the incidents of cross-border fire in violation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement. India’s attempts at sending a strong message to its opponent by imposing prohibitive costs unless it changes its behavior seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Consequently, Islamabad has resorted to “tactical nuclear weapons” threats to continue proxy wars undermining India’s superior conventional military capacity.

By prioritizing world politics over regional issues, the Nehruvian approach to foreign policy reduced the scope for stronger regional ties

As far as Nepal is concerned, resorting to an economic blockade as a pressure tactic toward the end of the 1980s forced Kathmandu to court Beijing, and New Delhi was accused in 2015 of playing an unofficial and covert role in imposing an economic blockade in favor of the Madhesi population as way to exert influence on constitutional developments in Kathmandu.

India’s role in the Sri Lankan civil war – the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in 1987 – did not achieve the desired objective of disarming the rebels, but rather the effort turned into a vicious cycle of violence that made New Delhi look more like a hegemon than a regional balancer of power. The strategy backfired as it antagonized the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who expected explicit Indian support for their cause, which eventually led to the Liberation of Tamil Tiger Elam (LTTE) assassinating then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The success of India’s coercive strategies in Bhutan when prime minister Jigme Thinley made a suspicious move to court China, allegedly to facilitate a formal diplomatic presence and a land-swapping deal, should not mislead New Delhi. India withdrew subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to increase pressure on Bhutan to change its stance. This was subsequently reversed and the succeeding prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, maintained close relations with India. Later, Bhutan’s withdrawal from the Motor Vehicles Agreement within the BBIN sub-regional initiative may indicate that India lacks soft power in the country.

Regional cooperation and integration

Until the Gujral doctrine was adopted by then-minster of external affairs IK Gujral (who later became prime minister) in 1996, New Delhi took a security-centric approach that emphasized policies that would not only keep the influence of external powers in the region at bay but would make India’s security assistance crucial for smaller neighbors. The doctrine was considered a paradigmatic shift in India’s approach because it included principles such as non-interference and non-reciprocity. For instance, based on the principle of non-interference, India refrained from contesting the Sri Lankan government’s arms purchase from Pakistan and the principle of non-reciprocity demanded unilateral positive gestures from India to maintain neighborly relations, irrespective of the capacity of other small states to reciprocate. India made attempts at converting existing treaties with neighbours into free-trade agreements.

Nevertheless, there is a growing perception in the neighborhood that the Gujral doctrine has been more rhetoric than reality. The issue of migration from the smaller South Asian countries into India has not been handled by the latter as per the expectations of its neighbors. India’s response to this through the regulation of trade and the fencing of the border has distorted India’s image in their perception. India also failed to manage its neighbors’ threat perceptions, which contributed to mutual distrust. For instance, the Nepalese expectation that it would assist in the repartition of Bhutanese refugees was continually ignored by New Delhi. Nepalese distrust can be gauged from the fact that when New Delhi swiftly responded to the humanitarian crisis in Nepal following an earthquake in 2015, its assistance failed to enhance India’s soft power in the country. It instead drew criticisms from the Nepalese because the Indian media was allegedly insensitive and biased in its coverage of the disaster.

As India for a long time preferred to deal with its neighbors bilaterally rather than through multilateral forums, sub-regional cooperation could not succeed, contributing to a lack of enthusiasm in New Delhi. At the bilateral level, India was not only perceived as a ‘big brother’ but a non-reliable economic partner given its failure to complete its projects in time. Within this larger context, China, with more resources and resolve, was viewed favorably by the countries of the region. The South Asian countries were receptive to Beijing’s mega-connectivity projects under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Kathmandu summit not only failed to achieve the desired results from New Delhi’s perspective, it also contributed to simmering concerns when India’s neighbors expressed their willingness to elevate China from its “observer” status to full membership of SAARC.

India’s security-driven regional policy led to a standard practice of extending support to a specific political faction of the neighboring countries. India consistently supported the Awami League Party of Bangladesh, patronized the democratic forces in Nepal and considered the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, pro-India while believing the oppositions in these countries favored either China or Pakistan.

New Delhi’s reluctance to engage with neighbors irrespective of regimes does not bode well for the Indian aim of regional integration

New Delhi’s reluctance to engage with neighbors irrespective of regimes does not bode well for the Indian aim of regional integration. It is worthwhile to consider how the healthy relationship with Nepal emerged as a challenge for India with Maoist parties forming a government there. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reluctance to visit Maldives during his neighborhood tour due to deteriorating political conditions did not deter erstwhile President Abdulla Yameen from forging close ties with China. India’s favorable view of the Sirisena government has not prevented Sri Lanka from leasing out Hambantota port to China for 99 years.

In place of a collective endeavor in the form of inputs, feedback, consultations and discussions before proposals are initiated, South Asia has witnessed a spate of regional initiatives in the form of either Indian-sponsored projects or unilateral gestures from New Delhi. The South Asian University in Dhaka (New Delhi made the principal contribution for its establishment and operation) and South Asia Satellite (also known as GSAT-9, an Indian gift to South Asian countries barring Pakistan) symbolized India’s unilateral gesture rather than an idea emanating from collective discussions and endeavors.

New Delhi would be able to put aside misperceptions about its image, role and the purpose of enhanced hard power by pursuing continuous consultations, discussions and deliberations pertaining to regional or sub-regional initiatives and enhancing its soft power. New Delhi needs to wield as much hard power as is necessary for its defense and dealing with proxy wars. Amassing hard power based on heightened threat perceptions and lack of dialogue with neighbors, on the other hand, would serve to alienate smaller countries.

Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.

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