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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Neighbourhood in turmoil

The next government must focus its energy on the SAARC region

Written by K Natwar Singh | Published: May 5, 2009 12:24:21 am

One of the recurring dilemmas statesmen face is to decide what is urgent and what is important. From Kabul to Colombo,Karachi to Kathmandu,a stable India is surrounded with unprecedented diplomatic chaos. This too at a time when India is in the midst of the largest electoral exercise in history.

Around the 20th of May,a new government will be sworn in New Delhi. Its first foreign policy priority must be to concentrate on our neighbours. Pugnacious diplomacy will not do,neither will a laid back approach. Our policy should be nuanced. Rightly or wrongly our neighbours accuse India of hegemonic ambitions. Raising the India bogey comes with fatal ease. Yet there is a grain of truth in their anxieties. This is the fate of all large countries which have less powerful and insecure neighbours.

At the moment,at least four SAARC countries have,for a long time,shown a genius for misgovernance. Talent is not lacking. But it is seldom made use of. Our splendid neighbours are living on the edge and surviving on political,economic and strategic over drafts.

Let me begin with Sri Lanka. The government of India and the government of Sri Lanka find themselves in a catch 22 situation. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. The energetic president of Sri Lanka cannot,at this late stage,abandon his spectacular military gains against the LTTE. On the other hand he faces the wrath of Tamils in and outside Sri Lanka. More than 2½ lakh Sri Lankan Tamils have had to leave their hearths and homes. It is a humanitarian disaster which India cannot ignore. Our catch 22 is to satisfy Karunanidhi and at the same time not annoy Rajapaksa. Passions on both sides are strong and sustained. These cannot be ignored. LTTE has some support in Tamil Nadu and Tamils living abroad. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu has also to cope with the acidic proddings of mademoiselle Jayalalithaa who has now publically supported ‘eelam’. So does the vociferous Vaiko. To ‘eelam,’ neither India nor Sri Lanka agree. Neither wants a Cyprus like situation in Sri Lanka.

Then,we have the not so agreeable leader of the LTTE. V. Prabhakaran. For him salvation lies in getting ‘eelam’. I have met him twice and that was enough. He is not a man who makes you feel comfortable. He lacks a well defined ideology or a rooted point of view except to attain ‘eelam’. It is he who first invented suicide bombers. It was he who asked teenagers to swallow cyanide pills to avoid capture. Prabhakaran is responsible for assassinating Rajiv Gandhi,who in his goodness accepted Prabhakaran’s word in July 1987. I requested the then prime minister that Prabhakaran should not be trusted nor should he be allowed to return to Sri Lanka. Other forces were working on Rajiv Gandhi and had their way. Diplomatic boy scouts were handling momentous events. For their follies Rajiv Gandhi paid with his life.

Afghanistan’s agony continues. It is surprising that NATO troops are stationed in Afghanistan. What in the name of heaven has Afghanistan to do with the Atlantic Ocean? Afghan history is written in blood. The British could not subdue the Afghans,neither could the Russians. Only Maharaja Ranjit Singh did so for a short while in the early decades of the 19th century. The Mujahideen,the Al Qaida and Taliban were not created by Afghans. It is well known who did.

Afghanistan lives by the gun and survives on revenues provided by the sale of drugs; President Karzai’s writ does not run beyond Kabul. The Americans are looking for a replacement. With all due respect,our American friends do not really comprehend the devilish intricacies of this part of the world. Transferring troops from Iraq is not the answer. What then is the answer? An A8 group consisting of India,Pakistan,Iran,China,Russia,the US,the central Asian republics and the UN. The sooner this group is formed the better. Statesmen must not only reflect on problems,they must find answers. Here’s a challenge for this group,if it is established.

Pakistan is sitting on a volcano. Its chaos could spill over to India. More worrying is the absence of a forceful government. Democracy has not taken root in Pakistan. Actually it has not found fertile democratic soil in many Islamic states. Pakistan is now the home and sanctuary of terrorists. They export terrorists to India and deny doing so against all evidence. Pakistan unfortunately for us is becoming a dysfunctional state. Whom does one talk to in Islamabad? Who is in control? The Taliban retreat from Buner is temporary. The Pakistani phantasmagoria is quite something. Regrettably Pakistan is a country in abeyance. It is also a nuclear power.

The composite dialogue between India and Pakistan is dead for all practical purposes because,some elements in the Pakistani establishment come up with freak reactions and blame India for their failings. This recidivous route is counter productive. The rule of law is eroded by the day. I am one of those who strongly feel that sustained instability in Pakistan is not in Indian’s interest.

When I became External Affairs Minister in 2004,the first country I visited was Nepal. I met the ex-king and put it to him why democracy and monarchy could co-exist? His assurances were both fluid and short-lived. He was surrounded by flunkeys who had reduced sycophancy into a sinister art form. The King’s obduracy and lack of foresight made the success of the Maoists inevitable. Our concerned agencies too were caught on the wrong foot and were hopelessly wrong about the rise of the Maoists. They were even more off the mark about the outcome of the elections which gave Maoists a spectacular victory.

Prachanda is a determined individual and has an agenda which gives us no comfort. He wants the Maoists’ Peoples Liberation Army to be amalgamated with the regular army.

These are not mature acts. Experience will perhaps temper his enthusiasm. He has since sacked the commander in chief of the army and then quit. We are pouring a thousand crores into Nepal. Yet China is more active in Nepal than we are. Prachanda feels quite comfortable with that.

Bangladesh is going through an internal upheaval which leaves little time for good governance or much needed reforms. Sheikh Hasina has succeeded in calming military tempers for the time being but the problem has not gone away. Far too many Bangladeshis have infiltrated into India. In some parts of our north-east they have altered the demographic contours.

All these countries are more or less bankrupt. We are the only stable and economically sound country in this region. We can help upto a point. Can we avoid blame?

Whatever government is sworn in after the 16th of May 2009,its first foreign policy priority should be to carefully prepare a road map for the SAARC region.

The writer is a former external affairs minister of India

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