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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Towards splendid isolation

August 23, 2010

Sunday Pioneer (India)
August 22, 2010

The ‘strategic depth’ that India had once enjoyed
in its neighbourhood has been lost, says Kanchan Gupta

In the past, any discussion on India-Nepal
relations with friends in the political
establishment and the bureaucracy and
professional colleagues in Kathmandu would elicit
animated reaction. There were those who would
gush over India and emphatically argue in support
of enhanced bilateral cooperation, and there were
others who would be equally vehement in
criticising India for what they called its
“bullying tactics”. There were moments when these
differences would disappear and there would be
unanimous support for India: For instance, when
India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998 — the
mood in Nepal was no less celebratory than in
India. The journalists from Nepal who were in
Colombo for that year’s SAARC summit were furious
that there should be criticism of Pokhran II. One
of them went to the extent of getting into a
scrap with a Pakistani journalist, insisting that
it was his right to defend India’s nuclear tests.

That was in the past. The present poses an
entirely different picture whose colours are
extremely bleak. During a recent visit to
Kathmandu, there was no animated discussion, no
vehement denunciation nor measured criticism of
India. Instead, there was sullen indifference.
India’s attempt to influence the voting in the
Constituent Assembly to elect a Prime Minister
has, for all practical purposes, come a cropper.
New Delhi’s hold is now weakened to the extent
that it cannot even ensure that the Madhesi
factions remain united. The move to isolate the
Maoists and ensure that Pushpa Kamal Dahal,
better known as Prachanda, does not come to
occupy the Prime Minister’s office once again has
not yielded any results. Four rounds of
inconclusive voting point to the dismal failure
of any initiatives that New Delhi may have made
to break the political deadlock that has
paralysed both governance and the main task of
the Constituent Assembly — framing a Constitution for a democratic Nepal.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy and
former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran was in Nepal
a fortnight ago to try and cobble together a
consensus against Prachanda and in support of the
Nepali Congress candidate for the Prime
Minister’s job, Ram Chandra Poudel. Although his
various meetings in Kathmandu have been described
as “fruitful”, the reality is far removed from
this official claim. The Madhesis may have
temporarily set aside their differences, but they
remain a deeply divided lot and not too sure of
sustained support from New Delhi. The CPN(UML) is
disdainful of what its leaders derisively refer
to as “Indian interventionism” in Nepal’s
internal affairs. The Maoists, of course, nurse a
deep grudge and, with 40 per cent seats in the
Constituent Assembly, are loath to be goaded by India in any direction.

In brief, the ‘strategic depth’ that India had in
Nepal has been lost. Or so it would seem from the prevailing mood in Kathmandu.

But it is not Nepal alone where Indian diplomacy
has begun to fetch diminishing returns. The huge
advantage India had to regain space in
Bangladesh, from where it had been squeezed out
during the BNP-Jamaat years when Begum Khaleda
Zia was in power, has been virtually squandered.
The interim Government that followed was
well-disposed towards India but New Delhi did
precious little to reach out to Dhaka.
Subsequently, after she was swept to power,
Sheikh Hasina enthusiastically sought to turn the
clock back to the days when the proximity between
India and Bangladesh was the envy of both
neighbours and distant superpowers. Her visit to
New Delhi in January this year generated a tide
of goodwill and a host of agreements. Half-a-year
later, the goodwill has begun to rapidly
evaporate in Dhaka; the agreements remain
unfulfilled, shelved along with files pending
political and bureaucratic attention in South Block in New Delhi.

Nobody talks of the joint communiqué that was
issued after Sheikh Hasina’s visit and which was
described as the beginning of a “paradigm shift”
in India-Bangladesh relations. That ‘paradigm
shift’ is still awaited. Bangladesh is miffed,
and rightly so, that the promised removal of
tariff and non-tariff barriers to bilateral trade
is yet to happen. India had promised to give
Bangladesh 250 MW of power. But nothing has moved
on the ground, not even technical work on
connecting the national grids of the two
countries with a 100 km transmission line which
will take two years to build after the technical
and tendering processes are over. By then Sheikh
Hasina’s Government would be nearing the end of
its tenure and there would be little to show by
way of her securing effective assistance from
India. Similarly, not a scrap of paper has moved
on the agreement to share Teesta waters or
resolve the Tipaimukh dam dispute. Bangladeshi
media, which was effusive over the outcome of
Sheikh Hasina’s visit, has now begun to voice doubts about India’s intentions.

Deep south, in Sri Lanka, there is increasing
wariness about India. New Delhi’s engagement with
Colombo has become a bit of a farce, episodic
rather than sustained. South Block periodically
raises the issue of resettlement and
rehabilitation of Tamils displaced during Sri
Lanka’s war against the LTTE. The assistance
offered by India for this purpose by way of
constructing houses is really inconsequential.
Security-related dialogue has come to a grinding
halt, although neither side will admit this: New
Delhi for reasons that are embarrassing; Colombo
because this is to its strategic advantage.

In Afghanistan, the future of any meaningful role
to be played by India is extremely doubtful. The
humanitarian missions New Delhi had launched are
at best limping along. Once the Americans up and
leave the country, India’s presence will be
determined by the successor regime that may not
include President Hamid Karzai and is more than
likely to be aligned with Pakistan. The West has
made it abundantly clear, notwithstanding polite
statements to the contrary, that India can at
best play a peripheral role in Afghanistan; the
future belongs to Pakistan. A crafty politician
and a seasoned survivor, Karzai has wasted no
time in electing to go with “my brother Pakistan”.

Frankly, what India is left with by way of
‘strategic depth’ is Bhutan. There too a question
mark looms large as democratic Bhutan has begun
to cast its net wider, seeking cooperation with
countries other than India. It does not see
happiness as confined to relations with India.

Yet, during the six years when the NDA was in
power and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was determining
the thrust of India’s foreign policy, India’s
bilateral relations with its neighbours were on
an upswing. The advantages that then accrued to
India have now been all but lost. If these
countries were partnering with India then, they
are partnering with China now. With Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh opting for a unifocal
foreign policy solely directed at improving
relations with Pakistan and choosing to ignore
other countries in the neighbourhood, this
deterioration was bound to happen. A charitable
explanation would be that this is by default and
not design. A realistic assessment would be that
with all attention, political and bureaucratic,
focussed on Pakistan, albeit without any movement
forward, we have lost the initiative in the rest of the neighbourhood.

While it is true that we have a Foreign Minister
heading the Ministry of External Affairs, it is
equally true that neither the Minister nor his
Ministry feels sufficiently enthused to carry
forward policy decisions, leave alone re-craft
policy to suit the constantly changing dynamics
of the region’s geopolitics and geostrategy. The
Prime Minister’s Office is obsessed with pursuing
a two-fold policy: Cosying up to the US on
America’s terms and engaging Pakistan in dialogue
— also on American terms. Everything else can
wait, and if it can’t wait, tough luck. This has
resulted in a strange lassitude taking over South
Block, with some of the best minds in the Foreign
Service just idling away, marking time. As for
Foreign Minister SM Krishna, he is blissfully
unaware of what’s happening in the neighbourhood;
even if he is notionally aware, he is happy to be
left out of the loop and do nothing to correct
the situation. His competence, or the lack of it,
was on display during his recent visit to
Islamabad and reconfirmed by his astonishing
utterances after what was a hugely disastrous tour of duty.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of India’s wilful,
some would say stunningly callous, disengagement
with its neighbours, China has been stealthily
stepping into the breach with spectacular
results. In Kathmandu, there is a palpable shift
in public opinion towards Beijing, and this is
not necessarily on account of the Maoists. Even
those who are opposed to Prachanda are favourably
disposed towards China. With work on to connect
the landlocked country with China by rail and
road, there is an increasing realisation that
Nepal does not need to depend on India for its
essential supplies, including oil. China has
effectively posited itself as an alternative, and
one which can fetch far more benefits to the
country and its people. Trade with Tibet is a
lucrative option and the fact that China has
allowed Nepal to open a Consulate in Lhasa has
not gone unnoticed: It’s seen as a rare
privilege, which it is. The children of Nepal’s
opinion-makers are being offered scholarships to
study in Beijing University. The media is being
supported in more ways than one. China is now
seen as a ‘benign’ neighbour, which suits Beijing
fine, providing it with crucial ‘strategic depth’
at India’s expense. It’s a telling comment that
in sharp contrast to the strident criticism that
follows any perceived “pro-India” move by the
Government of Nepal — Prime Minister Madhav Kumar
Nepal has had to retreat and withdraw his
decisions on several occasions — there is popular
praise for any deal that is agreed upon with China.

In Sri Lanka, too, China’s presence and influence
continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Hambantota
Port is now a ‘pearl’ in the Chinese ‘necklace’
encircling India. But that is only one of the
many achievements scored by China. Its continued
military assistance to Sri Lanka, which would
have been India’s prerogative had the UPA
Government not discontinued the supply of defence
hardware under pressure from the DMK, has helped
forge a strong relationship that will not be
easily shaken. What remains unquantified and
unknown is the extent of influence Pakistan has
come to wield over Sri Lanka by riding on the
coat-tails of China. President Mahinda Rajapaksa
is too astute a politician to rub India on the
wrong side and takes extraordinary care to say
the right things in the right place, but he has
silently, quietly forged a special relationship
with Beijing which, in turn, has helped him
strengthen ties with China’s ‘friends’, most notably Iran.

It is only a matter of time before China makes
decisive inroads into Bangladesh. Beijing has not
been idle and there are reports of increased
interactions and enhanced talks with Dhaka. For
all we know, China could be negotiating the
purchase of Bangladeshi gas and securing port
facilities in that country. With Burma in its
pocket, Bangladesh is the natural next stop for
China. Beijing is determined to increase its
sphere of influence beyond the South China Sea
and into the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

As for Pakistan, China is already deeply
entrenched in that country, in many ways much
more than the US is. From ballistic missiles to
JF-17 fighter aircraft, from nuclear power plants
to infrastructure, China continues to shower its
‘all-weather’ friend with every conceivable
military and civilian assistance. The Gwadar Port
will service China’s oil and gas transhipment
requirements, apart from providing Beijing with a
strategic outpost in Arabian Sea off the Persian
Gulf. Once the proposed Karakoram rail link
between Kashgar in Xinjiang province and Havelian
near Rawalpindi becomes operational, there will
be a tectonic shift in the region's geopolitics.

The strategy is obvious -- to contain India to
its territorial borders -- and the tactics to
achieve that objective are ruthlessly selfish, as
they should be. India’s hocus-pocus policy of
‘enlightened self-interest’ cannot but founder on
the rock of China’s aggressive expansionism.

Ironically, it is only now that there seems to be
creeping realisation in South Block of what’s
happening in the neighbourhood. A meeting of
India’s Ambassadors to SAARC countries, chaired
by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, was held in
Rangoon last week to take stock of the situation
and try and refix India’s priorities.
Interestingly, the meeting was attended by
India’s Ambassador to China, which makes eminent
sense. But this is at best a bureaucratic
exercise which cannot be carried forward unless
there is matching political backing. Mere
tinkering with policy won’t do anymore; India
needs a whole new set of initiatives to reclaim
the space it has ceded — or at least as much of
it as is possible in the given circumstances.

That, however, remains uncertain. As of now,
there is nothing to suggest that Manmohan Singh
is willing to give up his obsession with Pakistan
(and the US) and refocus attention on the greater
neighbourhood. It is suggested by his admirers
that Manmohan Singh is driven by the desire to go
down in history as the Indian Prime Minister who
brokered peace with Pakistan. That’s a noble
desire. But shouldn’t he rather want to go down
in history as the Prime Minister who expanded
India’s sphere of influence in its immediate
neighbourhood? Or must national interest suffer
on account of an individual’s myopic vision?
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