Decoding a fractious subcontinent

Published: December 13, 2013 - 15:51 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 00:41

The strength of India’s strategic relations with its neighbours in 2014 is predicated not just on the general election but also on its willingness to connect with a higher level of internal plurality

Jayant Prasad Delhi 

The Indian subcontinent is a ramshackle conglomeration of States, fractured by partitions of perception and identity. This is evidenced by the manner in which British India was divided into two nations, and Pakistan too was split 24 years later. An editor of a major South Asian newspaper, intent on decrying the potential of South Asian cooperation, described the region as nothing but the old British Indian Empire (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), plus the surrounding hill kingdoms (Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan) and the Indian Ocean Islands (Sri Lanka and the Maldives).  

But the subcontinent is not simply a cluster of proximate South Asian states sharing a defined cartographic space. Their contiguity is complemented by a common cultural legacy. The link of their historic connectivity runs through Kabul, Lahore and Delhi, all the way to the Bay of Bengal. A similar link runs through Bamyan, Taxila and Nalanda, which extends further to centres in China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. These cultural links are buttressed by physical ones: through the movement of peoples and goods, along the silk routes and the Grand Trunk Road. The subcontinental States are united also by the challenges they face: ending violence, eradicating poverty, generating employment and economic growth, and securing caste, ethnic and gender equality, and social equity.

With about a quarter of the world’s population spread over just four percent of the global surface, the region constitutes the world’s second least developed one, after Sub-Saharan Africa. Its per capita GDP, in terms of purchasing power parity, is three times below the global average. It has the lowest adult literacy rate in the world, lower than that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Between them, the South Asian States have more poor people than the rest of the world put together. There is a dramatic disproportion between their populations and their share in global output and trade.

Naturally, good relations with neighbours ought to be a priority for India. Its global margin of maneuvre is limited as much by domestic constraints as by a tough neighbourhood, which like India itself, is bristling with terrorism and insurgencies. Other adverse factors include weak governance, societies subverted by extra-legal power centres, destructive forces within State structures that aid and abet terrorism, cross-border migration, the ever-looming threat of natural and man-made disasters, and the challenges of pandemics and climate change. These have a high contagion quotient, given South Asia’s extraordinary population density.

Our neighbourhood is also part of a region riddled with paradoxes. While South Asia has one of the world’s most rapidly expanding markets, the gap between rich and poor people, as also rich and poor sub-regions, has grown dramatically, making it a subcontinent of sharp divergences. While individual States are integrating with the global economy, with India increasing its foreign trade three-fold between 2006 and 2012 to nearly $800 billion, intra-regional trade remains well below double-digit figures, making South Asia the least economically integrated area in the world. South Asian States are connected more to the outside world than to each other.

Could we expect any better in 2014?

This is unlikely, especially in relation to Pakistan. Successive attacks in 2008, first the July 7 bombing of the Indian Mission in Kabul, followed by the massacre in Mumbai on November 26, have become indelible reminders of the direct nexus between Pakistan-based terrorist groups and the Pakistan Army. Afghan and Indian officials were quick to spot the ISI hand in these events. WikiLeaks cables subsequently confirmed this. Senior US CIA officials confronted their Pakistani counterparts with evidence that the ISI helped plan the attack on the Indian Mission, besides tasking the Haqqani network to kill Indian officials, development workers and engineers in Afghanistan. Similar evidence is available regarding the Mumbai attack. There is little proof that this nexus has since been broken.

There was early promise that, post-elections, Pakistan would take quick action on the Mumbai attack perpetrators and resume the eight-segment bilateral dialogue. India remained undeterred in its efforts to pursue peace initiatives even in the face of continued incidents of terrorism, but the subsequent Line of Control violations derailed the dialogue process. Nawaz Sharif has himself come to the conclusion that no movement can be expected until India’s Lok Sabha elections next year.

In Pakistan, India awaits the movement of the civilian-military equation in a more positive direction, as also the enlargement of the constituency for better India-Pakistan relations. There is some churning within Pakistan, related to its India policy, induced partly by the realization that time might work in India’s favour. Public support for peace with India has grown. These trends, however, remain weak within its polity. Given India’s role in the creation of Bangladesh and Pakistan’s nationhood being the Boolean negative of India, the continuing paranoia in Pakistan about Indian motives should not be underestimated.

Afghanistan will be a major challenge in 2014, as the full impact of the US exit strategy unfolds — notwithstanding the possible survival of nine US bases with the stated objective of training, advising and assisting Afghan National Security Forces in a targeted and smaller counter-terrorism mission. The Presidential election, due in early 2014, will add to the uncertainty. That said, chaos-followed by a Taliban takeover or de-facto partitioning of the country under ethnic leaderships — is not an inevitability, if continued international support is available. If large areas in eastern and southern Afghanistan come under the control of insurgent groups, it is not that Pakistan will gain strategic depth in Afghanistan, but the reverse — also with unhappy consequences for India.

In contrast, the prospect of improved relations with China is better. China has a new and confident regime, which intends to invest in the country’s periphery. Over time, China has come to realize that the continued use of the Pakistan card against India has produced determined countermeasures that will keep pace with India’s progress. Recent bilateral exchanges have resulted in lowering of tensions on the border, promise of further expansion of commercial and economic relations, and acknowledgement of Indian concerns, including on river waters. The overall envelope of engagement has broadened and now includes Afghanistan, Nepal, counter-terrorism, and security of the oceans. Both countries are trying to master the art of constructive engagement in a historically adversorial relationship.

The makeover in India’s relations with Bangladesh, predicated on development commitments in return for connectivity and transit and sensitivity for each other’s security, is imperilled by the outcome of Bangladesh’s 2014 elections. Key identified tasks have still to be completed, including the finalization of the Teesta Agreement and ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement. The political contention within Bangladesh between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party is partly a contest for the soul of the country and its defining ideological orientation. In the foreseeable future, Islam-pasand (dear to Islam) forces such as the Jamaat-e-Islami might revive after their progressive decline since 2006. Another potential danger is of the ISI regaining space within Bangladesh for internal manipulation and subversion across its borders.

We need to reassure our neighbours, through actions of our commitment to their sovereignty, independence, national unity and territorial integrity

In Nepal, there has been strong popular endorsement of multiparty democracy. The peace process has moved forward by disbanding the People’s Liberation Army and integrating former Maoist combatants. Despite the successful Constituent Assembly election held on November 19, Nepal is again coping with how to bring the politically diminished Maoists back on board in the Constitution-making process – without which the objectives of the peace agreements and the jan andolans will remain unfulfilled.

Bhutan has had a smooth political transition. Electoral politics have taken root there as well. As a result, new power centres have emerged. India has become a factor in the domestic democratic process, as it has been in varying degrees in other neighbouring States.

In Sri Lanka, India has found it hard to convince President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the need for further steps in conciliating the Tamil population and to reverse the rollback on previous offers on devolution of power for the provinces. Our diplomacy and statecraft will be on test there.

Contrary to popular perceptions in India, developments in the Maldives are not negative. To break the political impasse, there was a need to ensure free and fair elections, which has been secured. Although foreign interests have fomented anti-Indian perceptions, the Maldivian elites have not forgotten Indian assistance in quelling the 1988 attempted coup and the 2004 tsunami. The newly elected President, Abdulla Yameen Gayoom, is the younger brother of Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, whose presidency lasted three decades until 2008, and who maintained a steady relationship with India.

In 2014 and thereafter, India will have to connect with a higher level of internal plurality in the countries of our neighbourhood, as also their augmented external engagement. China’s presence in each one of our neighbouring countries has been increasing – it is investing in some of our neighbours just as it is investing in India, so India must cope with the challenge of Chinese competition. China has shown a capacity to construct pipelines, port terminals, roads, bridges, and railways quickly and in any terrain. There is new learning required on the part of India and Indian firms to work with others, particularly with China, especially in the periphery that we share with it.

The flip side of India sharing a common civilizational space with its neighbourhood and the cultural closeness of the subcontinent – peoples speaking the same languages or belonging to the same ethnicity or religion straddling both sides of our boundaries – has the opposite effect of reinforcing our neighbours’ sense of separateness from India. Their elites feel compelled to assert their distinctive identity, often in opposition to India. We, in India, must be sensitive to the handling of their self-image. We need to reassure our neighbours, through our actions, of our commitment to their sovereignty, independence, national unity, territorial integrity, and development.

Although India’s economy benefits from its growing population and large internal market, social and economic progress in South Asia remains integral to India’s future development. India is inseparable from the subcontinent, including its problems. It must, therefore, play an active role in resolving them. The only other option would be to seal off India completely from its contiguity but, given the density of population and the porosity of the frontiers, this simply cannot be done.

Our leaders have spoken of unfettered relationships in the neighbourhood, with free movement of trade, investments, peoples and ideas. On issues on which they have laid the greatest emphasis, including connectivity, energy, and infrastructure, there has been a big gap between promise and performance. The cost of non-optimal cooperation can be seen, for instance, in the management of water resources in Nepal. Its rivers that flood the Indian plains have the highest hydropower potential of Asia, upwards of 100,000 MWs. Yet, it is India that currently supplies electricity to Nepal during the lean months. Moreover, for want of energy supplies, which could lift the lives of the Nepalese people, India is compelled to use high-ash content and expensive, imported coal for its thermal power plants, which cause emissions harmful for the Himalayan ecology.

Our neighbours too have been slow to take advantage of the open and expanding Indian market and investment capacity. Consequently, India’s private sector has turned its attention away from them towards developed economies. Ratan Tata spearheaded a push in 2004 for a $3 billion investment in Bangladesh in the sectors of steel, power, and fertilizers but, irked by the interminable negotiation of terms and hostile local reactions, decided to turn away to acquire Corus and Jaguar in the United Kingdom.

It is true that no transformative moment is likely to open up for India vis-à-vis its neighbours in the short term. Even so, India must do its utmost, in the difficult circumstances in which it is placed, to look for every available opportunity to increase trade, investment, connectivity, and people-to-people contact in a manner that political relations with the neighbours do not fall below a threshold that protects our security interests. We cannot afford to wait for the most propitious moment for it – for this is not going to happen on its own, without our working for it with patience and perseverance. 

The author has served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria, Nepal and the UN Conference on Disarmament

The strength of India’s strategic relations with its neighbours in 2014 is predicated not just on the general election but also on its willingness to connect with a higher level of internal plurality
Jayant Prasad Delhi 

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