Zero-sum diplomacy

The recent Chinese incursion across the Line of Actual Control near Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh is nearing a diplomatic resolution. However, it is not entirely clear what concessions, if any, were made to the People’s Republic of China to end this military standoff that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) actions had precipitated. Despite this apparent settlement of a crisis that was brewing, this latest fracas with the PRC simply underscores how New Delhi is woefully reactive in the conduct of regional diplomacy. The absence of a coherent strategy is not merely disturbing but potentially quite costly for the country.
Ironically, the lack of a well-conceived approach to deal with a host of extant issues in the neighbourhood comes at a moment when India’s stock has risen considerably in global affairs. A brief survey of the country’s bilateral relation with virtually every country in the region shows that its influence is at best limited and, at worst, almost non-existent. In this context, it may be useful to provide what constitutes a working definition of influence. Simply stated, it is the ability to shape the preferences of other states through the use of various diplomatic and other policy instruments.
The country’s limited influence is visible across the region ranging from the easiest to the hardest cases. Given the existence of a mostly friendly regime in Bangladesh, it is simply shocking that South Block has been singularly unable to push through a series of bilateral agreements that could be of much mutual benefit. These range from the settlement of minor land disputes, the vexed question of illegal migration from Bangladesh and the resolution of river water sharing arrangements. Admittedly, on the last issue, the mercurial chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, did much to scuttle the agreement. However, any adroit and politically astute regime in New Delhi should have anticipated a degree of obstreperousness on her part.
State-level politics has also wreaked havoc on India’s Sri Lanka policy. There is little or no question that India’s substantial Tamil population has a compelling interest in the fate of Sri Lanka’s hapless Tamil community, especially at the end of the country’s sanguinary civil war. Yet, the state of Tamil Nadu and its politicians cannot be allowed to exercise a unit veto on India’s foreign policy through a process of political outbidding. Indeed, this is all the more compelling since New Delhi only rather belatedly concluded that the PRC had made significant diplomatic and commercial inroads into the island country. Consequently, its own room for manoeuvre with Colombo had become constrained. Allowing myopic politicians in Tamil Nadu to influence the country’s foreign policy in the quest for electoral gains is simply intolerable.
In a markedly similar vein, New Delhi has failed to retain a degree of influence within Nepal — a country of enormous strategic significance. Indeed, Nepal’s importance to India’s strategic concerns will grow as the PRC assumes an increasingly assertive foreign policy in South Asia and elsewhere. Yet, despite the expenditure of considerable treasure in terms of development assistance, India’s standing within Nepal is negligible. Worse still, a good deal of reflexive anti-India sentiment pervades much of the political discourse in the country. The PRC, on the contrary, through deft engagement, has been able to make considerable headway in that country.
Nor have the UPA’s policies been marked with much dexterity in Afghanistan. Admittedly, in a strict geographic sense, Afghanistan is not a neighbour. However, few states in South Asia, with the obvious exception of Pakistan, are of as much significance to India’s medium-term security concerns. Once again, despite huge material and diplomatic investments in the country New Delhi has little or no idea how it hopes to protect its vital interests in the country in the wake of the US drawdown come 2014. There have been, it is believed, some desultory attempts to renew ties with the remnants of the Northern Alliance, to enhance the training of the Afghan security forces and to steel President Karzai’s resolve in his fitful attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. Yet, all of these efforts taken together constitute an adequate endeavour to safeguard India’s interests in the country.
If relations with the mostly non-hostile, smaller neighbours are in such doldrums, how does one view the ties with the other, more recalcitrant neighbour Pakistan? Despite the renewal of a version of the composite dialogue even in the wake of the horrific, Pakistan-based (and most likely, state-sponsored) attacks on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, the results have been distinctly paltry. For all of New Delhi’s overtures, reciprocity from Islamabad has been sorely lacking. Even the most anodyne step toward trade liberalisation, namely the granting of “Most Favoured Nation” (MFN) status to India, remains in abeyance. On more contentious issues, of course, such as any attempt to prosecute the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks, there has been no progress whatsoever.
Finally, despite every attempt to avoid giving offence to the PRC, barring such small, symbolic gestures as the Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and a willingness to grant some leeway to the Dalai Lama, India’s China policy is in a shambolic state. At a time when the People’s Liberation Army was encamped some 19 kms across the Line of Actual Control, the minister of external affairs Salman Khurshid publicly extolled the putative progress in Sino-Indian relations and is proceeding to Beijing as planned.
The mark of any rising power involves an ability to place its domestic affairs in order. On this score, whether it involves the provision of infrastructure, the pursuit and success of poverty alleviation and the containment of social tensions, India’s recent performance has bordered on the abysmal. Now it also appears that the regime in New Delhi is equally incapable of coping with a single extant challenge to its critical foreign and security policy interests in its immediate neighbourhood. None of these portents bode well for the country’s long-held aspirations to transcend the neighbourhood and play a meaningful role in world affairs.

The writer holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington

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