Monday, February 21, 2005

INDIA: Grappling with specter of failing states

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.New Delhi shows similar ambivalence and what its critics term "cluelessness" in dealing with the other potentially failing state, on its eastern border, the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. The National Awami Party-led (?) and Islamic fundamentalist-supported government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia keeps thumbing its nose at India, allowing Indian rebels from northeastern states a sanctuary, though constantly denying their presence, and allowing militants to make assassination bids on secular leaders who campaign for friendship with secular, democratic India.

India grapples with specter of failing states
Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - For the past five years or more, India was almost exclusively obsessed with facing threats from Pakistan. Also, it has been busy promoting its emerging "big power status" and lobbying for a permanent veto-wielding United Nations Security Council seat. Playing its "rightful role" in world affairs was the goal. Now suddenly, it is seized with the nightmarish vision of two potentially failing steps on its eastern doorstep, one likely to be soon overrun by Maoists with links to Indian radicals of the same hue, and the other dominated by Islamic fundamentalists with links to al-Qaeda and Pakistani extremists. Indeed, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is also predicting that Pakistan could be a failed state by 2015.

India seems not to know how to respond to events unfolding in Nepal and Bangladesh. Right-wing opposition is pillorying the government for what it calls its knee-jerk reactions. But some good may come out of this as New Delhi focuses its sights closer home. The Ministry of External Affairs has, however, promised to come out with its South Asian strategy soon.

When Nepal's King Gyanendra seized power on February 1, India reacted angrily, according to its first impulses; democratic, as democracy had been trampled on; and super-powerish, as its specific advice to the king not to go ahead with the widely suspected coup had been ignored, thus challenging India's pre-eminent status in the region.

Much sanctimonious posturing and pretentious outrage ensued. A regional summit meeting was postponed as a democratic leader of India couldn't be seen shaking hands with a constitutional monarch who had assumed power, put political leaders under house arrest, jailed journalists and suspended civil liberties. A planned visit of the army chief was also canceled.

Now the democratic impulse has run its course, super-powerish rage has subsided, and a sense of reality has set in. New Delhi cannot afford to disengage with Nepal and thus leave the door open for China and Pakistan to step in and perhaps establish a permanent military presence on India's northeastern borders. Following in the footsteps of China and Pakistan, therefore, India's Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, too, has called the developments an internal matter of Nepal. India said last Wednesday its response to the recent developments in Nepal would be dictated by the clout of the Maoists agitating for the abolition of the monarchy in the Himalayan kingdom.

A meeting of the Indo-Nepal joint security group that was to be held later this month to work out details of supplies that the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) needs has now been called off. But speaking in his capacity as a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, the defense minter said, "We recognize that if the security situation [in Nepal] deteriorates due to increased Maoist influence, it will heighten our own internal security threat. It is not an ordinary thing if they [Maoists] increase their influence and strength in the neighboring Himalayan kingdom. If Maoist activity is not constrained, this may cause problems to us." Mukherjee explained, "There is extremist activity in a large number of our states. Because of the porous border, there is a threat perception that once they [Maoists] exert more influence in Nepal, there will be an impact here. Our policy will be keeping that in view."

Already, fearing a crackdown following the assumption of all powers by Gyanendra, a number of senior political leaders and activists have slipped into India's bordering states, Uttaranchal, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, causing a lot of concern among security agencies. Some cadres of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) have reportedly sneaked into West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, where they could indulge in extortion and get into clashes with other Maoist groups.

According to a report submitted by the intelligence agencies to the Home Ministry, CPN cadres had slipped through the porous India-Nepal border and could be now engaged in extortion rackets in Jharkhand and Bihar. The presence of CPN cadres has the potential to spark bloody clashes with the Maoist Communist Center (MCC) and the People's War Group (PWG), which already operate in the two states and are engaged in extortion rackets themselves. In fact, there have already been some reports of clashes between the CPN and the MCC, but none have turned too ugly so far.

It seems India's military relationship with Nepal is also not going to be affected as a result of the monarch's coup. Revealing that the Nepal army had sent a communique to the Indian army seeking continuance of friendly relations, Mukherjee said India had responded "along the same lines". He continued, "The missive did not specifically seek additional arms and equipment to counter the Maoists and India had stated that close bilateral military ties should continue. We have a long-standing relationship with the RNA. That relationship stands.

"The RNA wanted reiteration of the same policy," added the defense minister, number two in India's government hierarchy. And, of course, India has obliged. India recently supplied helicopters, mine-proof vehicles, guns and ammunition to the RNA to counter the Maoists. A second tranche reportedly is in the offing, but the minister did not specify whether it would go through in the present circumstances or whether specific requests for any military hardware had been made.

The Bangladesh headache

New Delhi shows similar ambivalence and what its critics term "cluelessness" in dealing with the other potentially failing state, on its eastern border, the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. The National Awami Party-led and Islamic fundamentalist-supported government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia keeps thumbing its nose at India, allowing Indian rebels from northeastern states a sanctuary, though constantly denying their presence, and allowing militants to make assassination bids on secular leaders who campaign for friendship with secular, democratic India.

Former prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the only surviving daughter of the father of Bangladesh liberation and former prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, barely survived an assassination attempt last August, and the widely respected former finance minister in her government, Shah A S Kibria, was killed in an Islamist bomb attack on his political rally a couple of weeks ago.

In its bid to work out a coherent policy toward these neighbors, in whose functioning as normal, secular democratic states India has a great stake, impinging on its own long-term security, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is at present focused on two primary questions, sources in the government told Asia Times Online.

One, should the government adopt a carrot or/and stick policy, and to what measure toward whom? Two, should New Delhi try to solve these problems through a bilateral or a multilateral approach involving the United Nations, or world powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and/or regional powers like China and Pakistan?

In the context of the first question, some sections in the government have resurrected the love doctrine of depending on carrots propounded and implemented for some time by former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral. This is also known as the Gujral doctrine. Gujral is a former congressman who led a government in the mid-1990s very much similar to the present UPA government in its orientation and support structure, except that the Congress Party then was supported from outside. He had started implementing it as a foreign minister in an earlier Deve Gowda-led government of what was then a "third front" supported by the Congress Party.

The Gujral doctrine primarily stood for India as a big power being magnanimous in its dealings with smaller neighbors and not to expect reciprocity from them every time it gave them a concession. It was very successful in earning the respect and affection of the smaller South Asian neighbors that surround India. As President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan told this correspondent at a luncheon table in Lahore a couple of months ago, when a smaller country makes a unilateral concession it is considered a surrender to big-power politics, but when the same gesture is shown by a big power, it is called generosity and magnanimity. Clearly, there are many takers for the Gujral doctrine in India's complex neighborhood.

The one time India was genuinely popular in the neighborhood, as the Times of India wrote in one of its editorials some time ago, was during the short stint of Gujral of the socialist Janata Dal, who was sensitive to the fears of smaller neighbors. The Gujral doctrine of assisting neighbors without expecting them to reciprocate was criticized by hawks in the establishment for giving in to pressure from India's smaller neighbors, but obviously it proved the more successful policy. The newspaper reminded its readers that India had a reasonably good relationship with all its neighbors before the Hindu fundamentalist Bhartiya Janata Party-led coalition government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee took office in 1998.

The Vajpayee government theorized that India would be better able to project its big-power status on the world scene if it succeeded in making its neighbors fear India's military power, and thus respect its dictates. But the near-contempt with which even the smallest and weakest of its neighbors treat India makes it clear that the sticks-only policy failed. Most distressingly for many observers, these neighbors, like Nepal and Bangladesh, are on the verge of becoming failed states and are almost wholly dependent on India for their survival. They are called "India-locked" due to their multiple dependencies on India for a variety of geopolitical reasons. And yet they neither love nor fear India.

Hawkish supporters of the Hindu fundamentalist doctrine explain the failure of this policy by complaining that Vajpayee did not implement it fully. For instance, India never bombed insurgents and civilian areas where they may be hiding in Kashmir or the northeast from the air in the manner of the US in Iraq or Russia in Chechnya or Israel with the Palestinians. How then could India expect to be feared by its insurgents and neighbors, they ask.

Right-wing columnist Swapan Dasgupta, for instance, comments, "King Gyanendra's faith in his own leadership may well be misplaced, but the South Asian experience suggests that non-ethnic insurgencies are rarely settled by following democratic niceties. The Naxalites [Maoists] in West Bengal, the Khalistanis in Punjab and the JVP [People's Liberation Front] in Sri Lanka were defeated by meticulous military operations that violated every clause of the human-rights charter. Saving democracy entailed putting democracy on the back-burner."

Mainstream India is, however, wiser by experience. Even half a million soldiers have not been able to pacify Kashmiri insurgency, despite cross-border infiltration having come to a virtual halt for nearly a year and a half. Neither has the US been successful in Iraq, nor the Russians in Chechnya, nor the Israelis in Palestine, despite the unrestricted use of brute force for years. With three-fourths of Nepal already under Maoist control, and vast masses of people on their side, the Nepalese king, with his 80,000 soldiers, who were primarily palace guards, though recently equipped with modern weapons by India and the US, hardly stand a chance of success in the near future.

Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta takes a more balanced approach. His diagnosis and lament: "A great power ought to be loved or feared, or both. We do not offer carrots that are attractive enough for our neighbors to love us; our stick is not strong enough for them to fear us. We yet again helplessly watch Nepal drift by. We do not appear to have the military capabilities to transplant democracy or bring the Maoists to heel. Nor do we have other forms of soft power to greatly influence the outcome. We once again are left to pick up the pieces."

On the question of whether to take a bilateral or a multilateral approach, almost the entire media and a good chunk of intelligentsia advise the government to take a multilateral approach, and globalize the conflict in Nepal, as well as the growing Islamist threat in Bangladesh. India has, however, traditionally disliked the idea of international intervention in the South Asian region, which it considers its own turf. Inviting others would be an admission of failure on its part, it is felt by large sections in the bureaucracy. It was only with reluctance and rather a sense of helplessness that Delhi recently acknowledged US forces as having a role to play in providing relief in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka.

There is strong resistance in the government to thinking about South Asian security in multilateral terms. Taking the Kashmir dispute to the UN has not been a good experience for India. Until today, Kashmiri secessionists and their backers in Pakistan waved UN resolutions of 1948 in front of Indian eyes to prove their points, even though Musharraf seems to have realized their irrelevance in the present context. So go-it-alone would be the preferred policy for many in the government.

India's largest-circulation newspaper, The Times of India, is the most unequivocal in advising a multilateral approach. In a comment typical of editorials in other mainstream newspapers it says, "It is time for New Delhi to shed its customary ambiguity and address the problem head-on. But first we must get over our go-it-alone mindset. In today's globalizing world, no one should consider geography crucial to its strategic influence. So, it would be in India's interest to internationalize the Nepal crisis and try to win over as many nations as possible to our point of view. It is imperative that India take the issue up at the UN and lobby to work out a consensus on the best way to restore democracy in Nepal. As we have seen, Beijing, Islamabad and Dhaka have been trying to fish in troubled waters by insisting that the king's abolition of democracy is an internal matter for Nepal. Bangladesh, ever eager to put India down, has added its voice to this chorus. If we were to bring up the issue at the UN, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh would be hard put to explain why they support a move inimical to democracy. It would also expose their own undemocratic systems of government as being the reason for their energetic espousal of King Gyanendra's action."

While resistance from foreign-policy mandarins is palpable, the Times of India's comment seems to represent a cross-section of public opinion in India, which is disgusted at the royal coup, particularly because this king is not as popular as the previous ones, except in Hindu fundamentalist circles that have come out in his support and are demanding that India go out of the way to support him.

The paper continues, giving voice to what can be expected to be general opinion in the country: "Our focus should be on getting King Gyanendra to revert to his position as a constitutional monarch since New Delhi accepts that the two pillars of governance in Nepal are the monarchy and the political parties. India should help enable the Nepalese people to voice their opinion on what sort of political system they would like, and whether the monarchy has a valid role to play in it. Meanwhile, we should put pressure on the king by cutting off the arms supplies which we have so generously provided in the past. But under no circumstances should New Delhi be seen to do anything detrimental to the people of this desperately poor nation. Any verdict we are able to secure in the UN cannot be dismissed lightly by an already isolated king. This will ensure a speedy, and hopefully lasting, solution to the Kathmandu crisis."

At the moment of writing, however, it is not at all clear as to what approach the government will take. Its traditional ambiguity continues to dominate the debate, in the absence of a strong and decisive leader like former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who is missed in such moments of crisis. Manmohan Singh is still an unknown entity, though many are drawing comparisons with him and Gujral, hailing as both do from the mystical land of Punjab. Wishful thinking though it may be, some are hoping that this soft-spoken scholar-politician will follow India's first prime minister and pre-eminent leader of his Congress Party Jawaharlal Nehru's multilateral approach, and his fellow Punjabi intellectual-politician Gujral's love-thy-neighbor doctrine. His moves in the next few days will be watched with great interest and some trepidation.

Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi-based writer.