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Chanakya: India’s new template for the neighbourhood – columns

On Thursday, Indian security forces thwarted a bid by terrorists belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammed — who, intelligence reports suggested, had been sent in to conduct a terror attack ahead of the district-level elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

There is little doubt that this could not have happened without a green signal from Pakistan’s establishment — which wants to ensure violence in Kashmir to portray a land in turmoil, generate international attention, prevent any kind of election which may be seen as legitimising India’s control in the region, especially after the constitutional changes of 2019, and distract public attention within Pakistan from the domestic political turmoil.

India is aware of not just the specific challenge from Pakistan — a state that is happy to sponsor violence for its ends in violation of every international law and norm. New Delhi is also aware that managing the larger neighbourhood is inextricably linked to domestic stability, external power projection, and retaining its influence regionally at a time when China is actively intervening in the smaller countries of South Asia with the explicit objective of undermining Indian interests.

In this backdrop, what are the elements India should consider while evolving its neighbourhood policy? Chanakya proposes a five point template.

The first is for a country in a category of its own — Pakistan. The key policy debate in India on its most difficult neighbour has broadly revolved around whether to engage with the civilian government and encourage “constituencies of peace” within Pakistan or whether to disengage since real power, in any case, rested with the Pakistan army, which, in turn, drew its power from sustained conflict with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was happy to try the first approach, as reflected in both his invitation to Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in in 2014, and then his surprise visit to Sharif in Lahore. But Pathankot, Uri, Pulwama, and over the past year, Pakistan’s belligerence on Kashmir internationally has ensured that India is now firmly on the second track where it sees little benefit from engagement. The fact that a hardline approach against Pakistan is beneficial politically at home also tilts the balance.

India, given Pakistan’s refusal to change its approach to either Kashmir or terror, is likely to continue with this position. It must also develop more robust internal security capabilities to ensure that terror attacks don’t succeed at all, and it must ensure that its policy of inflicting costs on Pakistan for any cross-border terror attacks continues — but below the threshold of an all-out conflict. And this is why, while maintaining its stand, India should — if it is not doing this already — consider having backchannels with the Pakistan army to neutralise a potentially escalatory situation. Don’t engage deeply but have a powerful, behind-the-scenes interlocutor for moments of crisis.

Second, the fact that India is the only country in South Asia which shares a border with all other countries in the region means that smaller neighbours occupy a greater share of policy attention in New Delhi than is often assumed. And here, the question is fundamentally political. Should India continue exercising its influence in the domestic politics of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh — intervening when necessary to shape the nature of electoral outcomes, weighing in favour of a set of leaders over others and determining broad policy arrangements — or should it stay out of the political process entirely and focus only on the outcome and do business with whoever is in power?

This unresolved question has been at the heart of India’s regional dilemma. Do you back Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, work to oust KP Oli in Kathmandu, look for alternatives to the Rajapaksas in Colombo, and invest in politically sustaining the Ibrahim Mohamed Soli-Mohammad Nasheed partnership in Male — or do you stay out of this game? This dilemma has played out most recently in Nepal, where India has been uncomfortable with Oli, quietly encouraged his detractors to topple the government, but is now making peace with the Nepali prime minister because the strategy hasn’t succeeded, bilateral ties can’t be left in cold freeze, and geopolitical compulsions have to be factored in. In the process, India runs the risk of not really winning Oli’s trust and losing the trust of its other allies in the Nepali political set-up. But this is a more recurring issue which has never been satisfactorily resolved. Either way, based on its interests, real leverage, and willingness to invest and stay the course, India should adopt one path and stick to it instead of being seen as a vacillating power.

Three, in every conversation New Delhi now has with its neighbours, the big elephant in the room is China. Sometimes, this is explicitly discussed where concerns about a certain project or the timing of certain visit are conveyed. Often, it casts a shadow in the room but without either side mentioning the C word. The fact is China will play a role in the neighbourhood; it has moved from expressing security sensitivities to enlarging economic cooperation to now shaping politics. India must have a clear set of redlines for each of its smaller neighbours, and expressly articulate these to the top leaders across the spectrum in neighbouring capitals — while foreign policy does not operate in certitudes but ambiguities, this is one area where leaving no room for confusion will help. Tell the neighbours what actions vis a vis China will ring security alarm bells in Delhi, and tell them to be prepared for consequences if these redlines are crossed, while expressing support in all other areas.

Four, India must be more generous. The focus on unilateral, non-reciprocal goodwill gestures has continued to be a part of the current government’s approach. And this is good. But Delhi can do more to open its educational institutions to students from the neighbourhood (already a successful soft power component which can be deepened), open its markets to enable greater workforce participation from elsewhere (the rhetoric on immigrants doesn’t help here), and offer substantive, big-ticket project assistance which will generate goodwill in these neighbours, from helping with public transport systems in the crowded capitals of Nepal and Bangladesh to being the major provider of public good — for instance the Covid-19 vaccine next year — to citizens in the immediate periphery.

And finally, India should shed its traditional reluctance to engage with external powers and allow them a role in the region. China’s presence necessitates deeper cooperation and dialogue with the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and Japan, to name only a few powerful blocs, on South Asia. Leverage these partnerships and don’t be insecure that they will substitute you — they will add to your strength in taking on the threat from the north.

South Asia is crucial to India’s peace, stability and prosperity. Managing it with a mix of instruments — hard messaging and tough actions when unavoidable and close engagement, deployment of soft power and real assistance to people whenever possible — is the only way out.


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