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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A region without norms

And India is neither feared nor loved in South Asia

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
March 12, 2013 12:02:16 am

And India is neither feared nor loved in South Asia

The crossed wires of South Asian history keep damaging India’s political stature. There is an interesting ferment in the region. The ferment oscillates between moments of immense hope and looming despair. The Shahbag protests in Bangladesh presented the spectacle of a mass mobilisation taking the liberation narrative into its own hands. The ostensible objective,punishment for the perpetrators of 1971,seemed narrow,but here was an attempt to come to terms with history being played out on the streets. The protest was also a sort of rebuke to reactionary forces like the Jamaat. And predictably,reactionary violence followed.

In Pakistan,minorities,from Shias to Christians,are increasingly at risk. Action has been taken in the wake of anti-Christian violence. But how does one explain the near silence,internationally,on the continued violence against Shias? Is it a result of Pakistan’s continuing indispensability to great power politics? Or is the human rights imagination circumscribed? In Sri Lanka,a combination of intoxicated nationalism and authoritarianism is taking its toll on the quality of democracy,and slowing progress on reconciliation with minorities. The Maldives are in a political mess. Nepal’s constitutional stalemate can still have worrying outcomes.

What is India’s skin in the game? Its external affairs minister was quoted as saying that India does not want to play big brother. The intention is fine. But translated into South Asian English it means that we do not have a policy. India’s being caught off-guard in the region has put a great question mark on its leadership capabilities. As Nitin Pai recently pointed out in an article,we do not have a coherent framework for the region. Our current policy has only one leg. We were hoping India’s growth engine would somehow become attractive enough for our neighbours to want to join the party. And to be fair,India has worked hard to this end,and is prepared to go the extra mile.

But we forgot two challenges. The region is still populated with leaders and political forces that will cut off their own nose to spite their face; and investments in enmity override the well-being of populations. You need different instruments to deal with such leaders. But more importantly,whichever way you look at it,the stability of the region depends on getting three things right in all of the countries: democracy,the nature of nationalism,and a commitment to human rights. The current ferment is related to these issues.

Unless the region as a whole builds a consensus on human rights,these spillovers will continue. This is obvious. But the history of South Asia would be different if the obvious had not eluded us. This point is important because only a consensus can give coherent content to our engagement. Pai suggested that we engage with forces that are compatible with our national interest. But in the long term,these forces can only be those that have the potential to build a new normative consensus in South Asia; it cannot be national interest defined in a short-sighted way.

India’s capacity for navigating these choppy waters seems quite diminished. Domestic preoccupations have put us largely in a reactive mode. The fragmentation of politics has made even our friends across the region doubt our capacity to deliver. The sheer erosion of state power has ensured that we are neither feared nor loved. As someone from a neighbouring country recently remarked,with a touch of snideness,a country that could not handle the case of a birth certificate of its own general is unlikely to have much stomach to deal with far more wily and obdurate generals in the region. There is also panic in some quarters that our ability to manage the region might diminish with the US leaving Afghanistan. This is an open question. But the panic projects state weakness. The truth of this charge is not the issue. But the perception licenses the thought that it is easy to take liberties with India. A slowdown in India’s growth will only diminish this authority. And then there is the unresolved question: what is the arsenal of instruments,from the use of force to sanctions,that India is willing to use in the service of its goals? There are limitations to what instruments we can use. But the perception has gained ground that India is conducting foreign policy without many instruments at its disposal.

But we still have not reached a proper articulation of norms for the region. Officially,we will want to say both that we respect sovereignty and that we are concerned with human rights and democracy. But on occasion,these things come into conflict. Most of our neighbours think we will somehow reconcile these contradictions in our mind without actually doing anything. Second,in the case of Sri Lanka,in particular,we were right to want to see the LTTE finished off. The issue of war crimes may be both politically and legally more complicated. But the quality of Sri Lanka’s democracy and its reneging on commitments that would enable the participation of Tamils are hugely worrying. If the reason of state doctrine subverts internal democracy in a meaningful form,it should be a matter for concern. Third,human rights discourse in South Asia has to evolve beyond concern for co-ethnics: Tamils getting agitated only if Tamil interests are at stake; or Hindus getting interested if it is just a matter of Hindu interests,etc. Even the most well-meaning of our politicians so easily slip into a communal vocabulary that vitiates the legitimacy of their cause. Fourth,we have to admit that nothing is more hypocritical than the human rights discourse. After all,a country like the US,which has done much to legitimise the idea of collateral damage in war and created a web of 40 countries complicit in condoning torture,can hardly carry authority on this subject. But as the great realist K. Subrahmanyam used to remind us,norms can have power despite being marked by organised hypocrisy. Human rights matter. Finally,there is the power of our own example: if our democratic practice licenses reason of state indiscriminately,our ability to be an interlocutor in regional norms will diminish. You need states to be willing to act to pacify violence. But there is no long-term future for the region if the consensus on norms does not shift.

So our neighbours do not have to worry about norms. They do not have to worry about India’s capacity to pressure them. And they also have the reassurance that assorted Indian powers like the Lord at Tirupati or the Saint at Ajmer are on their side. Welcome to South Asia.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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