The Indira Doctrine is dead

Make way for the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine

Led by the redoubtable Aziz Haniffa some observers are getting more than a little flustered at a senior US official’s remarks about the United States letting China play a bigger role in and around the Indian subcontinent. Speaking at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration said “”China has an important role. It’s a neighbor of South Asia. And it’s unimaginable that China would not be involved.”

Well, he’s right. He appears to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but even if he were to mean the subcontinent and its neighbourhood, he would not be wrong. Whether you like it or not, China is and will, in the coming years, become a even more influential player in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This will undoubtedly mean that India’s neighbours will attempts to play one against the other, and because India is the status quo power, this will work to India’s relative disadvantage vis-a-vis China.

The Indira Doctrine—which saw the subcontinent as India’s exclusive sphere of influence—died somewhere over the last twenty years. Whatever might be the reasons for its lapse, the objective reality today is that India is a pre-eminent power, but not the sole hegemon, in its immediate neighbourhood. Getting excited over Mr Steinberg’s realist appreciation of the situation is therefore unwarranted.

Should Indian foreign policy attempt to resuscitate the Indira Doctrine? Doing so would be limiting the vision to India’s capabilities and interests to what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s days, would be very challenging, of dubious strategic wisdom and perhaps even unnecessary. Why? Because India is playing in a much bigger playground today. New Delhi needs a Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. If China seeks to gain influence in India’s neighbourhood, India should do the same in China’s neighbourhood and elsewhere. [See East of Singapore and The Asian Balance]

What is interesting about Mr Steinberg’s remarks is that the United States is prepared to engage India on this. “Just as we talk about South Asia with China,” he said, “we talk about East Asia with India…” In fact what is even more interesting is this “We see India as (an) East Asian country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays.” This is almost exactly The Acorn’s argument.

Because of geography if not anything else, India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood will grow in parallel with its own development. It is important, however, to understand the opportunities in the geopolitical environment that allow India to implement the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. At this moment, it is in the United States’ interest to support India in the East Asian balance of power. New Delhi must swing towards this opportunity.