Saturday, March 12, 2005

ANALYSIS: The Indian rope trick

India has a history of either vanishing when it is required to intervene in its neighbours' affairs, or of intervening dead wrong. The dilemma for India shows up whenever there is a crisis 'natural or political' in the neighbourhood. To an extent, it is fine for India to mobilise its armed forces to help Sri Lanka's tsunami victims. But what should it do whenever there is a political crisis such as the recent suspension of democracy in Nepal? Should it play honest broker between Nepal's recalcitrant Maoist rebels and an obdurate King Gyanendra, or should it allow the tiny Himalayan kingdom to reach its own solution/s? India has intervened in the past, the "liberation" of Bangladesh from Pakistani oppression and peacekeeping efforts in Sri Lanka being standing examples. But there is no clarity, even after all these years, whether the interventions served India's national interests and, as a corollary, endeared it to its neighbours.

The Indian rope trick
Sanjay Kapoor

Being the largest nation in South Asia, India just cannot figure out how it should deal with its neighbours. Too much interest in their affairs is seen as interference and attempts to spread and consolidate its hegemony. Contrarily, ignoring the happenings within these neighbours is seen as a manifest abdication of responsibility towards those who need help. The gentle balance, and the understanding, needed to handle these delicate relationships are somehow missing.

Perhaps all this has to do with the subcontinent's colonial past, and the violence associated with the birth of some South Asian nations. Even after 50-odd years of India's independent existence, the countries of this region are uncomfortable in, and with, the presence of one another. Unresolved issues pertaining to the partitioning into subnationalities by national borders hastily drawn by colonial rulers continue to foment violence and hatred in this region. This ongoing turbulence has allowed the world's stronger powers to pursue their own agendas. Even China, wary of an ambitious India, has taken advantage of this chaos.

The dilemma for India shows up whenever there is a crisis ? natural or political ? in the neighbourhood. To an extent, it is fine for India to mobilise its armed forces to help Sri Lanka's tsunami victims. But what should it do whenever there is a political crisis such as the recent suspension of democracy in Nepal? Should it play honest broker between Nepal's recalcitrant Maoist rebels and an obdurate King Gyanendra, or should it allow the tiny Himalayan kingdom to reach its own solution/s? India has intervened in the past, the "liberation" of Bangladesh from Pakistani oppression and peacekeeping efforts in Sri Lanka being standing examples. But there is no clarity, even after all these years, whether the interventions served India's national interests and, as a corollary, endeared it to its neighbours.

History never develops linearly: long before King Gyanendra dismissed the government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Indian government had been trying to figure out what it should do with, and in, Nepal.

When the erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition was in power, there was no ambivalence about which group it should back: King Gyanendra, a royal Hindu, was putting up a valiant battle against non-believers. Gyanendra was networked with Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders, who organised their "Sita yatra" to Janakpur in Nepal. Furthermore, US military advisors continue to assist the Royal Nepalese Army in taking on the Maoists.

After the Deuba government's removal, the Indian government criticised Gyanendra, asking him to restore democracy in Nepal. India also threatened to stop military aid and, ominously, to take steps that could make Gyanendra's life difficult. This decision of the Indian Foreign Service establishment didn't quite enjoy the backing of the intelligence agencies. The foreign service feared that Nepal was being forced into China's arms and of others inimical to India's national interest.

The Chinese government empathised with the Gyanendra's palace coup. (In fact, a few days before his takeover, the Nepalese government had shut down the Tibetans' Kathmandu office. It was a move, experts say, meant to mollify Beijing.)

While Gyanendra has been using his brinkmanship to force the Indian government to back him, the Indian government fears a repeat of the quagmire it got stuck in in Sri Lanka and is adhering to a hands-off policy.

The big question is: can India afford not to mobilise itself? The reluctance of various Indian governments to play a more proactive role has hurt India dear in the past. Its failure to keep the regime of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood afloat in Kabul, for instance, permitted the spread of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In geopolitical terms, India has squandered away a lot of influence ? with Pakistan turning into the real beneficiary. Only after 9/11 and the Afghan war was this "imbalance" corrected.

In Myanmar, the Indian foreign establishment's indifference allowed the Chinese a free run. The Chinese slowly gobbled up the markets traditionally controlled by Indian companies. It is only in the past few years that India, properly unnerved, has put together a neighbourhood policy and is now looking at Myanmar more closely than ever before. India's petroleum ministry's recent efforts to tie up with Myanmar's oil enterprise could help India regain its footing.

India should seize the moment in Kathmandu and help Nepal find an honourable solution to its crisis. It might require deft diplomacy and micro-detailing of the tripartite arrangement between the Maoists, the political class and the Palace. Anything less might leave India vulnerable: not only would the Maoists spread disaffection in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal Pradesh, where many Maoists and other political leaders have gone underground, hesitation would show India up as a country unworthy of its regional leadership position and an aspirant to a permanent slot in the UN Security Council.

India needs to prove to its neighbours the sincerity of its real politik. Its commitment to democracy could help provide it the moral stature for the neighbours not to feel queasy about its intentions.