A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region, the fulcrum of global power play in India’s neighbourhood
During his two day visit to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked the fine line between encouraging a political reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese community and the minority Tamils, and avoiding any impression of dictating a settlement. Modi presented India as an engaged but not too intrusive a neighbour. He did something similar when he went to Nepal last year and called on its parliamentarians to quickly wrap up the writing of the constitution.
India’s neighbourhood policy has learnt, over the years, to carefully navigate between the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbours and the need to manage the indivisible nature of the subcontinent’s security. India’s intervention in Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh in 1971 and the deployment of a peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka during 1987-90 are just two examples of how India gets drawn deep into the internal affairs of its neighbouring countries.
Beyond those major interventions, India is often accused of constantly trying to micromanage the internal affairs of its neighbours. China, in contrast, never forgets to mention that it follows a strict policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. Beijing has found particular resonance for this approach in South Asian capitals, where India is often attacked as a neighbourhood bully.
On the face of it, Beijing’s policy of dealing with whoever is in power seems smart and risk-free. Not really. Recent developments in Sri Lanka show that Beijing’s approach has problems of its own. In Lanka, Beijing got so closely identified with the unpopular regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa that it now faces difficulties in adapting to the regime change in Colombo.
Non-intervention, of course, is not necessarily neutral; it tends to benefit the regime in power irrespective of the merits of a situation. Given the geopolitical unity of the subcontinent, New Delhi does not have the luxury of treating the principle of non-intervention as absolute. That does not mean Delhi can claim a divine right to intervene in the internal affairs of its neighbours. India’s own experience in Lanka reminds Delhi that some interventions can turn out to be rather costly and still ineffective. The extent and nature of India’s involvement in the internal politics of its neighbours, then, must be based on a prudent judgement of the specific situation at hand.
The question of intervention in the subcontinent is often discussed as a problem on the supply side — India’s great power ambitions and its presumed hegemonic tendencies. But there is a demand side as well. Political leaders in neighbouring countries often seek India’s support in resolving their internal disputes when it serves their interests, but are quick to accuse Delhi of meddling in their internal affairs when it does not.
Lanka’s former president, Rajapaksa, who blamed India’s intelligence agencies for rallying the opposition to oust him in the general elections last January, would have no reason to complain if RAW had “helped” him win the elections. The opposition to India’s intervention, then, is not based on principle but about who benefits and who loses from it. This says little about political hypocrisy in the subcontinent, which is endemic, but highlights the reality that Delhi’s policies have an impact on the internal power balances in neighbouring countries.
The demands for India’s intervention and the vehement political opposition to it are very much part of South Asian life and are unlikely to end soon. The former prime minister of Nepal, Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, is facing flak in Kathmandu for saying that India has a role in helping to resolve the constitutional deadlock in his country. The Maoists used to argue that India’s regional hegemony was the greatest threat to Nepal. Some opposition leaders in Dhaka, who never missed an opportunity in the past to bash India, are now asking it to put pressure on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to hold fresh elections.
Before he can pat himself on the back for a fine diplomatic performance in Lanka, Modi now faces a big political test in the Maldives, where the regime of Abdul Yameen has arrested former President Mohamed Nasheed on charges of terrorism and a perverted judicial system has sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
As things boil over in the Maldives, Nasheed’s supporters want India to step in and stop the deliberate victimisation of the former president. But the ruling regime in Male will cry hoarse about India’s intervention if Delhi does anything.
Delhi, however, might find it increasingly difficult to remain mute spectator. In this particular case, it may no longer be a question of whether to intervene. For Modi, the challenge in the Maldives is about deciding when and how to act and deciding what goals Delhi must set for any prospective intervention, political or otherwise.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’