Sunday, February 20, 2005

INDIA : The politics of region

+ South Asia has not forgotten that India bifurcated Pakistan and a few years later annexed the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. Good Indians may be astonished, but many outsiders see India if not as an expansionist power, then as a nation that does not allow scruples to stand in the way of serving what it considers its national interest. Even well-disposed Bangladeshis claim that Indira Gandhi's primary aim in 1971 was to cut Pakistan down to size. Concern for their suffering came second. Hence the questions about India's motive. External affairs ministry officials may not have thought through the effects of snubbing Bangladesh, the host country, and Pakistan, the SAARC chairman, which is naturally dismissive about India's reasons. +

19/02/2005

Bully The politics of region
Sunanda K Datta Ray

Should collective cooperation be made hostage to good conduct at home?

One hopes the proposed Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline will not be a casualty of India's belated attempt to affirm regional supremacy. The plan recalled the Singapore-Malaysia water connection which emphasises interdependence even when political relations are most fraught.

Singapore doesn't only import water from Malaysia. It also purifies Malaysian water in Malaysia and sells it back to the Malaysians at a discount.

If Tripura and Sylhet gas is also injected into the pipeline for shared use, interlocking arrangements at various levels might yet succeed in bringing together these distant neighbours in the east.

But perhaps the mandarins of South Block decided that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation would never be able to pool more than poverty and politics and was not worth saving.

Maybe, it is their view that diplomacy will gain from a display of firmness by South Asia's biggest power. Many problems arise from the absence of geopolitical equilibrium for which the Americans and Chinese are partly responsible.

But it is a moot point whether the decision to, in effect, scuttle SAARC's Dhaka summit will disabuse governments of the notion that South Asia is a community of equals.

Or cure their habit of treating India as favourite whipping boy.

The danger is not only to the plan to tap Myanmar's unexploited gas reserves, provide Bangladesh with handsome transshipment fees and supply much-needed energy to the neglected northeast.

SAARC itself might be a casualty. Goals like a South Asian free trade area next year and an economic union in 2010 may still be pies in the sky, but the organisation also enshrines the hopes of more than a billion of the world's poorest.

Of immediate concern is the reaction in India's smaller neighbours as they take stock of the political message of the abrupt last-minute cancellation of Manmohan Singh's trip to Dhaka.

South Asia has not forgotten that India bifurcated Pakistan and a few years later annexed the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. Good Indians may be astonished, but many outsiders see India if not as an expansionist power, then as a nation that does not allow scruples to stand in the way of serving what it considers its national interest.

Even well-disposed Bangladeshis claim that Indira Gandhi's primary aim in 1971 was to cut Pakistan down to size. Concern for their suffering came second.

Hence the questions about India's motive. External affairs ministry officials may not have thought through the effects of snubbing Bangladesh, the host country, and Pakistan, the SAARC chairman, which is naturally dismissive about India's reasons.

But even they knew that deteriorating law and order in Bangladesh and political turmoil in Nepal posed no threat to the Indian delegation's security. Yes, both countries display worrying trends, but making collective cooperation hostage to good conduct at home introduces a new element in regional politics.

King Gyanendra's suppression of democracy is not just a moral outrage like his father's 1960 coup. The possible practical fallout this time is that the king may have played into the hands of Maoist rebels, which can have grave security implications for India with its own rampaging Marxist-Leninist cadres and hundreds of revolutionary cells.

An unstable war-wracked Nepal can further complicate India's delicately poised relations with China. Nepal is as much a yam caught between two boulders today, as it was when King Prithvi Narayan Shah united the kingdom and founded the dynasty.

Bangladesh with its 4,096-km land border with India, parts of it along river beds or through jungle, is just as crucial to Indian security. Many in Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and especially its two fundamentalist allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote, are no friends of India's.

One of Mrs Zia's key advisers was suspected of complicity when a cargo of small arms ' enough to equip two infantry divisions' was landed at Chittagong last April, apparently to be smuggled to India's northeastern rebels. Illegal immigration is a continuing irritant and a demographic danger.

But with all this, no one can be sure if the SAARC summit was not also torpedoed as a favour to Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her Awami League, who are perceived as India's secular friends.

But even Mrs Wazed cannot change the climate of opinion in her country. As prime minister, she failed to sell Bangladeshi gas to India in spite of Inder Kumar Gujral's advice that she does so through an American consortium that would deflect political criticism.

If the pipeline project still goes through, as one hopes it will, Bangladesh is likely to be unyielding on its three conditions - a reduced trade gap, land transit routes to Nepal and Bhutan, and hydroelectricity from the two Himalayan kingdoms.

Apart from giving India and Bangladesh a stake in each other's welfare, the project might establish another link between SAARC and ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member.

As for the political aim, India has given notice that it will do business only with secular, liberal democracies. But what about Pakistan's Islamic military dictatorship?

What, for that matter, of Pakistan's insistence on parity 'abetted by the US and China and buttressed by nuclear weapons' even though it is a quarter India's size with one-seventh the population?

India has not in the past met these challenges with consistent firmness. One cannot be sure whether the latest move is the beginning of a new era of resolution or just a flash in the subcontinental pan.