India needs to play a stronger regional role
Maoist guerrillas have blockaded Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, demanding an end to the constitutional monarchy and ostensibly the installation of a ‘peoples’ regime. King Gyanendra is no angel himself, and mainstream politicians have not distinguished themselves by rising above partisan rivalries and getting round to providing leadership.
Terrorists have just carried out a massive assassination attempt that almost wiped out the top rung of Bangladesh’s opposition party. Had they succeeded Bangladesh would have descended into a paroxysm of internal violence giving ample opportunities for Islamic fundamentalists to seize power, or at least exploit the political vaccum to pursue their intolerant agenda.
Maldives has been placed under a state of emergency by its long-serving, but democratically elected president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Opposition activists have stepped up their campaign of street protests and the government has called for international political figures to help mediate and solve the political crisis. President Gayoom himself has demonstrated a tendency to exploit Islam to strengthen his hold over power.
Sri Lanka continues to remain in a deadlocked situation, with the Tamil Tigers holding sway over large swathes of territory in the north and the east that the government forces are unable to re-capture. The blow-hot blow-cold peace process has brought back some normalcy to the civil war-torn country, but peace is on a tightrope.
Pakistan’s Balochistan province is again in open rebellion, while the tribal-areas of Pakistan’s frontier are almost completely alienated from Musharraf’s Pakistan. Their support for al Qaeda is just one manifestation of their disenchantment with the malformed federal structure of Pakistan. While its own provinces are fighting for some form of self-determination, Musharraf’s regime continues to pursue its dogmatic agenda in Kashmir – an escalation of cross-border infiltration has been accompanied by the strengthening of pro-Pakistani elements among Kashmiri separatists.
Within India, the north-eastern states have yet again indicated their displeasure with the ‘benign neglect’ they have received from faraway New Delhi. Porous borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh allow insurgents, separatists and criminals from these states to exploit the discontent and pursue their own agenda.
Every country in India’s immediate neighbourhood is in some sort of political crisis, and every single one of them affects India’s own internal security. Yet, even as SAARC countries routinely lambast Indian hegemony, the truth is that India has few options to address these multiple crises just across its borders. But stability in India’s immediate vicinity is both in India’s interests as well as desirable in its own right. SAARC, that one effort to foster regional cooperation, often gets into a lets-gang-up-against-India mode that ends up achieving nothing.
There is thus a clear need for India to develop foreign policy options that can bring peace and stability to the region. These options range from active diplomacy to military intervention, and must be conducted under the umbrella of an assertive foreign policy doctrine that articulates India’s intentions to act in favour of restoring stability. This approach is likely to raise hackles in South Asian capital cities, but raised hackles are normal in the subcontinent. South Asia is in a hole despite India’s hands-off attitude to regional security. It can get worse. Besides, the United States has already secured a foothold in the subcontinent, and China is in the process of securing access both to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Further consolidation of these powers into the South Asian context will just complicate matters further.
Bringing about a Pax Indica in the region requires India to demonstrate its intent and build its capability to secure regional stability. India has to do so not because of a jingoistic urge to dominate its neighbours and bring them under its hegemony, but because regional instability works against its own national interests.