The idea that India is losing clout in the neighbourhood has recently become a special cause for anxiety among Delhi’s commentariat.
Is this concern really new?
The notion of regional primacy certainly persisted in the Nehru era — recall the three security treaties that the first prime minister signed with Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal during 1949-50. But primacy was hard to sustain after Independence even within the immediate neighbourhood.
Five reasons stand out according to Mohan.
One is the Partition of the Subcontinent. The problems generated by the great division of the Subcontinent on religious lines continue to animate the region.
“No amount of virtue signalling in the name of good neighbourly policy can help fix the challenges of settling boundaries, sharing river-waters, protecting the rights of minorities, and easing the flow of goods and people,” writes Mohan.
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Second, the arrival of China at the Indo-Tibetan frontier during 1950-51.
“The unification of China amidst the Partition of India had profoundly transformed the geopolitical condition of India,” he writes. Beyond the bilateral territorial dispute in the Himalayas, the emergence of a large and purposeful state on India’s frontiers was going to be a problem given the ease with which it could constrain Delhi within the Subcontinent.
Third was independent India’s conscious choice in favour of de-globalisation, which led to a steady dissipation of commercial connectivity with the neighbours.
Fourth is the persistent fallacy in Delhi that the neighbourhood is India’s to will. It ignores the rise of political agency among neighbourhood elites and mass politics that they need to manage.
The fifth factor is the role of domestic politics in India’s regional policy.
Here is an important question that Delhi’s foreign policy debate avoids. Can India persistently champion Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka without incurring any costs with the Sinhala majority?
But asking that question takes us to India’s own domestic politics. Can Delhi ignore sentiments in India’s Tamil Nadu in making its Sri Lanka policy?
“There is no happy end-state in India’s relations with its neighbours…Timely responses to emerging problems, preventing small issues from becoming big, and aligning Delhi’s regional economic policy with India’s natural geographic advantages are some important elements of any successful management of India’s perennial neighbourhood challenges,” writes Mohan.
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