India’s fading regional influence

India’s neighbourhood is in great turmoil, but New Delhi seems unable to fashion a coherent, balanced, mature and self-confident response to it. In particular, India has dealt with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar and Nepal in confused and indecisive, if not wholly inept, ways. This has eroded India’s influence and legitimacy in the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ countries, comprising South Asia without Pakistan, with whom India pledged to establish close relations by ‘going the extra mile’ without demanding reciprocity.

Take Sri Lanka, where the Mahinda Rajapakse government, in a show of belligerent Sinhala chauvinism, has turned its face against the Tamil minority’s wholly legitimate demand for regional autonomy and devolution of power – which India has supported and articulated for long years. Still gloating over its May 2009 victory in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Rajapakse regime is riding roughshod over human rights and press freedom.

It stands acutely embarrassed by photographs just released by Britain’s television channel, which suggest that LTTE chief V Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran was killed in cold blood by the Sri Lankan military. Two photographs show the boy sitting in a bunker and eating a snack, seemingly in the custody of the security forces. The third one shows his dead body with unmistakable bullet wounds in the chest.

The disclosure will cause the Sri Lankan government great discomfiture when it comes up for a likely reprimand at the UN Human Rights Council. The government’s dismissal of the photographs as ‘lies, half-truths and speculations’ calculated to corner it at the Council just won’t wash. The channel claims it has consulted experts who say the three pictures were taken with the same camera. It candidly admits that its motive in releasing them, and also a documentary film later, is to make the Sri Lanka government accountable for civilian deaths in the final weeks of the anti-LTTE war.

For more than three years, the Rajapakse government asserted parrot-like that there were ‘zero civilian casualties’ in the war, which decisively defeated the LTTE. It has since begun to accept that some civilians did die, but claims they mostly died in crossfire. The number and circumstances of the killings are hotly disputed. But there’s no dispute that killing civilians is impermissible and illegal.

On logical as well as ethical grounds, India should have taken a clear, unambiguous stand on civilian casualties, in particular on Balachandran’s killing. India was in no small measure responsible for President Rajapakse’s success in militarily annihilating the LTTE.

Consider Bangladesh. India’s relations with it have improved over the past four years, with reduced trade barriers, better transit facilities, a $1 billion Indian line of credit, and more infrastructure investment. But there hasn’t been a breakthrough which would make the improvement irreversible.

India lost an invaluable opportunity to seal an agreement on the waters of River Teesta and a land boundary deal to swap 162 enclaves in each other’s territories. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caved in to the temperamental Mamata Banerjee, who vetoed the Teesta agreement for petty reasons.      

Little Maldives is another site of Indian diplomacy’s ineptitude, first noted in 1988, when New Delhi gratuitously intervened militarily to prevent a coup against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Last year, India again flexed its muscle by siding with the Indian company GMR, which faced a cancellation of its contract to build an airport. India threatened Maldives, but the threat didn’t work. In Myanmar, India first rightly backed pro-democracy leader and long-standing friend Aung San Suu Kyi, but switched over to the ruling
to counter growing Chinese clout in the country. Such ‘pragmatism’ didn’t eventually help much. The regime recently opened up Myanmar’s economy and political process. In response, many countries relaxed sanctions on Myanmar. Upon entering parliament, Suu Kyi visited Europe and the US before coming to India. When she came, she expressed her ‘disappointment with India’.

In Nepal, India helped reach a historic agreement between the Maoists and mainstream parties, which led to the deposing of the monarchy and free elections to a constituent assembly. But India quickly lost much of the goodwill thus earned by taking partisan political positions, while doing little to aid the formation of a broadly acceptable government or the writing of a constitution. India is losing credibility and influence in the mess that’s Nepal.

India’s regional policy has fallen between the two stools of pragmatism and principle. It’s time India revisited and rectified its approach. Relations with neighbours deserve nothing less. (IPA)
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