Saturday, February 12, 2005

INDIA: With Neighbours Like These


+ In the tripartite agreement on the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline, inked on January 13, not a single unit of Bangladeshi gas is envisaged to come to India. Bangladesh is on board for a very simple reason: it doesn't have the means or the money to carry its own gas from the east to the west.Thus, gas from Myanmar will come to India, gas from Tripura will go to Calcutta via Bangladesh, but gas from Bangladesh will remain within its territory. Only if the gas from all three countries use the same pipeline can this project become economically viable. +

With Neighbours Like These

FEB 21 Issue

Nepal is in turmoil. Bangladesh is mired in violent political feuds. Pakistan is aloof. What are India's options in this scenario?
V. SUDARSHAN

When India decided to pull out of the saarc summit early February, it was sending a signal—and in none too dulcet tones—about its intent to redefine its role in the region. It was not as if New Delhi had stopped believing in the common destiny binding South Asia; rather it was saying that India's neighbours could hope for its cooperation only on certain conditions. Underlying the message was the assumption: in an inextricably interconnected South Asia, cataclysmic changes in one country are bound to have its impact on India. No longer was New Delhi willing to passively watch the neighbourhood slide towards instability, even chaos.

Its new perception was fashioned by last week's disturbing developments. To begin with, King Gyanendra of Nepal had taken over the reins of power and imposed Emergency. In Bangladesh, the politics of fundamentalism had surfaced as never before. The problem was slightly different in Pakistan: the entire peace process, for some months now, had been held hostage to a lack of movement on India's proposal to initiate the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. New Delhi perceived these three countries to be suffering from systemic failures of one kind or the other, consequently enabling fundamentalists and terrorists to press upon India's borders.

With India's fervour to play a larger global role, the time had indeed come to define goals and take stock of the options in each of the three countries in its immediate radius.

Nepal

Years of mollycoddling King Gyanendra and his entourage in Kathmandu have yielded inimical results: large parts of

Nepal have become lawless, and both the political parties and the Maoists are now distrustful of New Delhi. Indeed, Nepal now resembles a state on the verge of collapse. Worse, big powers have their own agenda here.

King Gyanendra's direct rule presents a frightening possibility. Should his gambit fail, and he's unable to rein in the Maoists, he could take everything down with him. The ensuing chaos could have serious consequences in India. A diplomat sums up India's dilemma in Nepal, "Would India wait for Nepal to collapse before it intervenes? Or are we waiting to lead a United Nations force into Nepal for peace-building?" In other words, India can't afford to see the Nepali state wither away.

But this assumption poses a host of challenges. Do we play the king's game or demand restoration of democracy? The sheer complexity of the situation is spelt out by a diplomatic source thus: "How do we make it pinch for the monarch without making it bite for the people of Nepal; how do we protect our long-term interests without endorsing his position; how do we avoid strengthening his hand without not allowing Maoists more space; how do we reduce his space without conceding space to other countries; how do we press him without allowing him to whip up anti-India sentiments?"

Implicit in this formulation is India's decision to stay engaged in Nepal. The core of the engagement consists of India sending a tough message to the monarch that his current strategy of direct governance has no chance of success as long as the Maoists stay out of the political dialogue—and democracy remains derailed. The moot question is: can New Delhi persuade the king to follow its prescription?

New Delhi feels it has several leverages with the king. For instance, arms supplies to Nepal will be put on hold till the time the king begins to retrace some of the precipitous steps he undertook last week. Also, major bilateral meetings will not take place, though those technical in nature and involving junior officials will continue. Such measures are expected to mount pressure on the king and, if needed, New Delhi could ratchet it up further until he steps back.

New Delhi is willing to provide the king a face-saver, believing a complete reversal of his last week's decision would only undermine him in the eyes of Nepalis.This middle path would involve the king providing a new political dispensation of a broader nature. There are signs the king may be headed in that direction: on February 10, he released some of the political leaders who had been incarcerated.

Will India engage the Maoists? For the moment, no. Yet, in any eventual dealing with the Maoists, New Delhi will apply the principle it adopts in engaging insurgents at home: fight you may but keep the doors for negotiations open. Already, the Maoists in their last round of talks with the Nepali government expressed a willingness to accept monarchy in a form determined by the people.

As India engages Nepal, it's coordinating its strategy with the US, the UK and, more importantly, China. Diplomats, however, say the China card has been overstated, pointing out that its attitude and the region's geography precludes the possibility of Beijing substituting India in a hurry. For one, the main population centres of China are as far from Nepal as Japan is. Second, the only road connection between China and Nepal is cut off for three-four months a year. In fact, most Chinese goods to Nepal come in through Calcutta; China-Nepal trade is about 5 per cent of Nepal's total trade; India-Nepal trade constitutes 62 per cent. And though Beijing provides significant economic assistance to Nepal, it hasn't agreed to Kathmandu's request for a Free Trade Agreement.

Diplomats point out that during India's 1989-90 blockade of Nepal, China did not bail out Kathmandu. Not only is India-China relations better than what they were in those days, government sources say China will be conscious that any excessive engagement in Nepal might draw in the US as well. Therefore, China would prefer India to solve Nepal's mess, rather than any other country. In an unprecedented step, New Delhi took Beijing into confidence on the contents of India's statement on Nepal, sharing its assessment of the situation there. The assessment asserts that the turmoil in Nepal is not a welcome development for either China or India. In return, Beijing has assured New Delhi that their objective in Nepal was common.

Bangladesh

As for Bangladesh, India is alarmed at the free run fundamentalists have in the country; that insurgents fighting in India are receiving millions of dollars of arms and safe haven; that political opponents of the government have been killed; and that government-to-government business has become farcical. In pulling out of the saarc meet, India was also sending a signal to Bangladesh: set your house in order.

New Delhi feels this message has gone loud and clear to Dhaka. But what's not clear is whether Dhaka will act in a meaningful way, especially on the serial killing of Opposition leaders there. Says an official, "Bangladesh is not willing to engage with us. If Dhaka doesn't accept that there's a problem (with itself), then how do you even begin talking about it?" Adds another, "There's mistrust and lack of communication at all levels." In fact, official exchanges between New Delhi and Dhaka border on the surreal.

Dhaka denies the presence of terrorist training camps in its territory; it denies there's even a single illegal immigrant from Bangladesh in India (Indian estimates number over 10 million), and it denies a rise in fundamentalism in the country even though the newspapers there have been extensively reporting the phenomenon. What's more, it denies India transit rights, and is opposed to setting right trade imbalances through a more spirited trade policy that includes sale of gas.

In the tripartite agreement on the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline, inked on January 13, not a single unit of Bangladeshi gas is envisaged to come to India. Bangladesh is on board for a very simple reason: it doesn't have the means or the money to carry its own gas from the east to the west.Thus, gas from Myanmar will come to India, gas from Tripura will go to Calcutta via Bangladesh, but gas from Bangladesh will remain within its territory. Only if the gas from all three countries use the same pipeline can this project become economically viable.

There's also the problem of poor border management. Last week, officials in New Delhi held a meeting for giving a fillip to the project that aims to fence 2,600 km of the 4,096-km border that India has with Bangladesh. Though initiated in 1987, only half the earmarked length has been fenced; it's unlikely to be completed as per the envisaged schedule—by 2007. On the issue of terrorist training camps, India presented a list of 195 in 2004, up from 99 in October 2002.

Like Nepal, India is expected to postpone high-level exchanges with Bangladesh, though only foreign office consultations and a meeting between the Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles were on the anvil. New Delhi now plans to have a sustained engagement with the moderates in all political groupings of Bangladesh. Earlier, India had strong links only in the Awami League; its ouster from power invariably denied India of influence in the Bangladesh government, as the situation currently obtains.

Pakistan

With most of the proposals aimed at infusing life into the Indo-Pak peace process emanating from New Delhi, it's in India's interest to ensure obstacles are overcome in implementing these. At the crux is the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. The bus hasn't begun because Pakistan insists that passports can't be the valid document for travel across the Line of Control. Islamabad argues that since passengers would be crossing the LoC, and not an international border, a different travel arrangement, such as the one that exists between North and South Cyprus, should be put in place. But the Cyprus model is under UN supervision, which isn't acceptable to India because of its traditional opposition to any UN role in Kashmir. In addition, there's also the Baglihar dam issue across the Jhelum river in Jammu. Alleging differences over dam specifications in terms of various parameters, Pakistanis say that New Delhi has not stuck to the agreement that covers the dam. It wants all work stopped till the issue is resolved.

Does India feel the peace process is worth saving? Yes, say officials, pointing out that the LoC has been quiet over the last one year, albeit with minor aberrations. New Delhi has to now take a call whether it ought to accommodate Pakistan's wishes on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, thereby hoping that people-to-people contact could change the dynamics of a sterile, at times volatile, relationship. This will involve creative diplomacy. Foreign minister K. Natwar Singh's trip next week to Pakistan will hopefully provide a clue.