As prime minister Narendra Modi prepares to travel to the US again, this time to meet Donald Trump, a much more realistic and sober understanding of the challenges in India’s neighbourhood may be finally dawning on him and his band of advisors.
Perhaps the most important element of this shift-in-the-making is the recognition, three years down the road, that India’s size, population, economic strength and democratic credentials may not be enough to make it a predetermined leader of the region. In fact, the neighbourhood reacts terribly to being lectured, which has sometimes been Delhi’s wont. And, in contrast with the PM’s indefatigable promotion of India elsewhere, India’s many somersaults in its own neighbourhood have left people more disconcerted than dazzled.
Certainly, a key talking point in the PM’s conversation with Trump will be about China. He will try and suss out the extent of the US president’s fondness, or indifference, towards Xi Jinping. Modi’s own interactions with the Chinese president have been terribly fractious. Delhi has insisted that Beijing not stand in the way of its admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group or bar the sanctioning of Masood Azhar at the UN. But Xi has stood firm, even patronising, as China smilingly turned down Delhi’s requests.
But, at last, all the PM’s men seem to have understood that stoking the rant of embedded TV anchors cannot be a substitute for foreign policy; that TV wars with Beijing and Islamabad are limited to a rise in TRP ratings. That’s why the readout from Modi’s meeting with Xi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting at Astana, Kazakhstan, last week, was uncommonly moderate. This is an important step.
This shift-in-the-making took place after the Tibetan holy leader, the Dalai Lama, was accompanied by junior minister Kiren Rijiju during his recent trip to Arunachal Pradesh. The Tibetans were aghast. Anyone with a cursory acquaintance of Sun Tzu would know you don’t unnecessarily needle a big enemy. Letting the Dalai Lama go to Tawang which is an integral part of India was good strategy, but why look the Chinese in the face as you poke them in the eye?
It is this combination of anger and insecurity over China’s aggressive expansion in South Asia — which India considers its natural sphere of influence — that has defined Modi’s neighbourhood policy these past years. As Xi ordered his cash-rich Chinese institutions to infiltrate Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, or Nepal and Bhutan in the Himalayas, or Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal or Afghanistan and Pakistan on India’s western flank, Delhi reacted with anger.
Some of that emotion was productively used towards regime change, like in Sri Lanka. In Nepal, Delhi supported the Madhesi struggle towards equal rights, but watched with concern when former Nepali prime minister K.P. Oli laid a red carpet for the Chinese. That lit the fuse for another regime change — which is how Maoist leader Prachanda and Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba became prime ministers — except India backed off on its support for Madhesi leaders. A furious Terai, where the Madhesis largely live, has since risen in revolt against India.
Now, it seems yet another somersault on India’s Nepal policy is underway, as Delhi tries to assuage the Madhesis and promises renewed support for the agitation it abandoned a few months ago. The result has been massive confusion. India is seen as indecisive about what it wants — certainly not what an aspiring power should be.
With Afghanistan, Delhi has stuck its neck out — and shaken hands with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once known as the “butcher of Kabul,” for the thousands he ordered killed at his own and the ISI’s behest. India’s turnaround on this front isn’t such a bad idea. Sun Tzu’s advice, from across the centuries, comes to mind: Know thy enemy, in this case, the people and the country behind Hekmatyar. With its $3 billion assistance to Afghanistan, India is in a much better place today to deal with Rawalpindi’s machinations — even if China’s mining conglomerates are sooner rather than later returning to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine, not far from Kabul.
The trouble will come if Donald Trump asks Modi what else India can do for Afghanistan — as part of a possible what-America-can-do-for-India conversation. Can India put boots on the ground? That may be a near-impossibility. Can India supply weapons or, perhaps, pay for them? Certainly, Delhi won’t want to get further enmeshed in the Afghan marsh.
Modi’s next challenge in the neighbourhood will come after he returns from the US — and India decides whether it will boycott the SAARC summit that is to be held in Pakistan later this year. Last year, Delhi persuaded several other nations in South Asia to turn down Islamabad’s invitation. This time around, the choices may be far fewer.
But if the Chinese and Russians, and the US, begin to circle around the uniforms in Rawalpindi because they hold the key to the renewed unrest in Kabul, what is India going to do? How does it resurrect its Pakistan policy, which is in a shambles?
Certainly, Modi cannot be blamed for the revolution of the earth and alongside, the manner in which global politics unfolds. But he must take note of the fact that India’s reputation abroad is directly proportional to the affection and respect it enjoys in its near-abroad. Indian diplomats cannot hector South Asia’s smaller nations if and when they hope to “balance” India with China; that’s what small nations do. If India believes it is a unique power, it must play the game differently. It must show itself to be a calm and reassuring presence, not an angry one. That will make all the difference.