Elephant in the Neighbourhood: India in New South Asia

Over the last week, the shape of the new Indian administration has become clearer. It did emerge that the leadership of the Congress party is ready to do some fresh thinking, and they are fully using their mandate to take some strong decisions which were long overdue. Unlike the recent fresh faced administrations in the United States, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the new Indian administration does not start with a burden of a huge expectation. So far, they have used this to an advantage and delivered, or at least appeared to be delivering, more than what was expected, booting out the incompetent and the corrupt, reigning in undisciplined allies, projecting a national agenda over regional populism, and instilling a sense of new initiative and direction.

Next few months will affirm how much of this will hold the momentum and make a difference. For the moment, however, it seems okay to enjoy a sense of new urgency. We have already seen that in Finance, where, if rumours are true, the government is set to roll back FBT, a highly unpopular and grossly unjust tax on salaried people. Reforms of subsidies, labour laws and public sector units are surely on the agenda. So is a complete overall of the financial services sector regulations and how much the government would want to control the media. Education - currently plagued by half-baked legislation and a mostly corrupt and unreasonable regulator - will also receive its due attention, and things going right, India should experience a mini-revolution in education opportunities. Telecom and Aviation will also see their own sectoral revolution, as will the urban infrastructure in India. The question, however, is whether this fresh thinking and initiative will also get passed on to the foreign policy, and even if it does, will this mean a new engagement in the South Asian region.

The omens are good so far. S M Krishna is a capable man, who comes with a pair of fresh eyes and an agile mind. India's neighbourhood is fast becoming a strategic threat, with the Chinese influence going rapidly mostly at the back of India's indifference, and there is some acknowledgement of the problem now. There are burning issues, Pakistan's war against the extremists, Nepal's political conundrum, Sri Lanka's Tamil Refugees, Aung San Suu Kyi's trial, which will focus India's, and the world's, attention on the neighbourhood. However, such attention is fleeting and usually followed by knee-jerk reactions, and sustained policy initiative failed to materialise in the past.

Also, one must realize that the Indian voters have not only voted for unity and stability in the government, but also for progress and responsibility. Everyone wants to see India play a bigger role in the International community. The problem, however, is that a country will not be invited to the global top table unless they are able to demonstrate their influence and responsibility in their own neighbourhood first.

In fact, this was always India's problem. We sought to assume a sort of moral leadership right from the word go, but was never counted among the world's finest powers. Our sizable military, nuclear capability and success in space could not guarantee that the world's nations will turn to us for assistance or advice. This is primarily because we failed to play our role in the neighbourhood, and particularly because we have been locked in to a fratricidal conflict with Pakistan for so many years.

However, twenty years since the cold war ended, we need to come out of the cold war era thinking - a view of national security based on military hardware available - and get on with a new view based on security through integration. Indeed, this is a two way road and it is difficult to engage with countries which are still adopting the hostile, zero sum approach to world affairs. But, India has two strategic advantages to play with, the ones it has long neglected.

First, its market. Everyone wants a share of Indian market, and Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Pakistani companies are no less interested to do so than the Americans and the British. This is a significant leverage, and one that can help build a stable relationship between the countries. The intra-South Asian trade today has more barriers, restrictions and tariffs than anywhere else in the world. India needs to put economy at the heart of its local diplomacy, be serious about the South Asian Free Trade Zone and work with various countries to give them a chunk of India's prosperity. This will win over even the most belligerent. The tricky part is that as the largest country in the region, the onus is on India to start the process.

Second, India is a diverse country and its constituent states can play no less a part in diplomacy. India has almost never leveraged the strong contacts between Punjab and Gujrat and Pakistan, West Bengal and Bangladesh and Bihar and Nepal. Yes, except for the intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, and the stoking of Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, these relationships have almost always been forgotten. These need to be brought to the centre-stage now.

So, here are my top of the mind suggestions for SMK as he assumes office:

1. He should start with a visit to the capitals of our neighbouring countries. This should include the usual ones where we share a land or maritime border - Islamabad, Male, Colombo, Dhaka, Yangon, Thimpu and Kathmandu [and of course, Beijing] - but also the other two important states which play an important role in the region, Afghanistan and Iran. This will signal a new focus and initiative.

2. To take this even further, we should have a full time Ministry of South Asian affairs, with a capable man like Sashi Tharoor or Salman Khursheed in charge. The objective of this ministry will be to rejuvenate SAARC, set up a free trade zone and enable people to people exchanges.

3. We must allow South Asian businesses special treatment if they want to trade with or invest in India. The special ministry must work round the clock to make this happen as soon as possible. This should be the first step in establishing a free trade zone in this area, which should be achieved within the next five years or so.

4. Our Chief Ministers of states which has significant cross-border connections, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, must be made to reach out across the border, establishing relationships, encouraging trade and investment, and offering people to people exchange, at work and for study. They must be enabled to do so by the foreign ministry.

5. India must leverage its pre-eminent position as a Democracy and create a Democracy fund to support democratic institutions in neighbouring countries. This may, at the current time, mean more than sending some intellectuals past their sell-by date to Pakistan. This means actively supporting the campaign for democracy in India, both through government policy and by creating awareness in the country and creating a base for Burmese freedom fighters as we did for Tibet.

6. In some cases, we must also take a more active role in reconstruction. We are already doing a quite a bit in Afghanistan. In Sri Lanka and Pakistan, such efforts will be needed. We should offer our assistance without any strings attached. We should help Nepal build a modern military and Bhutan and Maldives to defend themselves better against mercenary attacks.

I see India's future in Asia, and more in near Asia. Only when we do our bit in the region, we can then stand up and claim to be counted in the world.


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