Pax Indica: Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Five neighbourhood paradoxes

You might have noticed that, relatively speaking, India’s policy towards the United States or Japan is far more coherent than towards, say, Nepal. Over the last few years, New Delhi was able to challenge the age-old dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), strike a favourable bargain with Washington and break into the international nuclear mainstream. Contrast that with the Indian government’s inability to play any palpable role in the political upheavals taking place in all the countries across its borders. The consensus, confidence and coherence that is increasingly visible in India’s dealings with the world’s powers is conspicuously missing in its dealings with its immediate neighbours. Why? Because neighbourhood policy is trapped in five paradoxes.

The paradox of proximity: While a peaceful and stable neighbourhood is conducive to India’s growth and development, domestic politics circumscribes New Delhi’s ability to intervene coherently. Look no further than the way the UPA government handled the Sri Lankan civil war. A government that names every fixed object built with public funds after Rajiv Gandhi could still not bring itself to unequivocally oppose the terrorist organisation that killed him. It’s not as if the LTTE enjoyed massive support in Tamil Nadu — it’s popularity waned after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — but such was the political calculus that untrammeled support for the Sri Lankan government became impossible. This opened the gates for China to make inroads into India’s southern neighbour, the implications of which will unfold over the next few years.

It’s a similar story with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and not always political. S D Muni, one of India’s leading authorities on international relations, says that the PWD engineers in the Indian districts adjoining Nepal have a say in New Delhi’s policy towards its Himalayan neighbour, because water-sharing is a key bilateral issue.

The paradox of power: as India’s geopolitical power has grown so has its fear of overreach. In a way, this is a reversal of the 1980s when the Rajiv Gandhi government’s ambitions were not always matched by adequate economic and military capacity. Like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi understood and was unhesitant to project power where necessary. Sending paratroopers to the Maldives to foil a coup by armed mercenaries, getting the Indian Air Force to drop relief supplies over Jaffna in defiance of the Sri Lankan government and ordering military exercises that implicitly threatened Pakistan were bold uses of power. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi had severely damaged the domestic economic engines necessary to generate and sustain that power, ultimately resulting in the overreach in Sri Lanka. That experience so scarred India’s politicians and policymakers that the use of military force outside India’s borders has been practically renounced as a tool of statecraft.

Instead of a careful projection of power within India’s (much greater) capacity today, we have strategy by bureaucracy. When you hear policy-makers say ”we will only send troops under the UN flag” you wonder whether our armed forces exist to serve our interests or those of the United Nations. This is not an argument for a trigger-happy policy. Rather, that India is incapable of protecting its interests without rethinking its policy on overseas military deployments.

The paradox of engagement: New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we.

It’s somewhat similar in Nepal, where we don’t properly talk to the Maoists. It’s the opposite in Myanmar, where we speak only to the generals and have so ignored the beleagured democratic opposition that, in the event that there is a change in circumstances in that benighted country, New Delhi will find itself needing to make new friends fast. Yes, circumstances are unlikely to change, but that’s no excuse to not hedge your bets.

The paradox of process: we are relying on processes that are only feasible when they achieve the outcomes they seek. In simple English, that’s called putting the cart before the horse. That absurd game of dossiers & lawsuits with Pakistan is a case in point. It would have been meaningful to use legal processes if India and Pakistan enjoyed the kind of normal relations that exist, say, between Malaysia and Thailand. But since they don’t, and Pakistan’s legal system is a joke (I’m not being charitable this time) dossiers & lawsuits is not only ridiculous. It is counterproductive, because anyone who reads newspapers will be put off by Islamabad’s shifty, brazen, too-clever-by-half attitude.

And finally, there’s the paradox of neighbourhood—we can’t choose our neighbours, but we have. For centuries, Gujaratis have been neighbours with East Africans. Keralites are neighbours of the Gulf Arabs, Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore. New Delhi doesn’t consider these countries neighbours. Yet they are. Treating them as if they are not has trapped us into a mindset of living in a troubled, unstable neighbourhood. This is one unfortunate fallout of the faulty conceptualisation of “South Asia” as being limited to the countries of the subcontinent. Once you see the neighbourhood as what it is, and includes East Africa, the Gulf, and South East Asia, you’ll find it full of opportunities, not vexed problems.

The first of these paradoxes might well be structural — foreign policy problems are more difficult to solve when entangled with domestic politics. But the other paradoxes are those of agency — we might be able to escape them if we want to. If we want to.

(This is the unedited version of my column in Yahoo! India)

Pax Indica: We are not South Asian

The term ‘South Asia’ is an attempt to appropriate the Indian subcontinent’s geography while denying its composite civilisational history

At a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of the organisers argued that the “South Asian identity” has made inroads across the world. He supported this argument with an example. Many universities in the United States, he said, now have bhangra and garba troupes, often consisting of people of entirely non-South Asian backgrounds.

I nearly fell off my chair.

There is nothing ‘South Asian’ about bhangra and garba, just as there is nothing ‘South Asian’ yoga, ayurveda or tandoori chicken (when was the last time you went to a North South Asian restaurant?). Actually, there’s nothing South Asian about qawwals, ghazals or the Multani raga (when was the last time you went to a South Asian classical concert?). In fact—and you might think, I’m stretching it—there’s nothing South Asian about Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If you measure Asia north to south, roughly along the 120°E longitude from the Siberia’s Arctic coast to Indonesia’s southern islands, you’ll find the subcontinent more or less in the middle. Geographically, if there is a South Asia, then the self-confessed ‘South Asians’ are neither in it nor from it. Read the rest at Yahoo! India »

Engaged neutrality in Sri Lanka

India should refrain from taking sides in Colombo

Sri Lanka, as the Indian Express put it, “seems to be on the brink of a new political fracture.” It is unclear why Mahinda Rajapaksa had to resort to highly draconian measures after his electoral victory. Putting his defeated challenger under arrest and on trial on ostensibly flimsy legalistic grounds appears to be wholly unnecessary and a grossly perverse calculation of priorities—the urgent task of reconciling a post-LTTE Sri Lanka needs political magnanimity and high statesmanship, not petty authoritarianism. [See Dayan Jayatilleka’s post in Groundviews] President Rajapaksa has made a big mistake.

Even so, India would do well to allow the Sri Lankan political processes and constitutional machinery to run their course. It is not unusual for Sri Lankan politicians to call for an Indian intervention when their own chips are down, but New Delhi should keep its distance from the goings-on in Colombo. Even as it maintains overall neutrality, it is important that India deeply engage all segments of Sri Lankan politics through multiple, parallel channels. It is possible that such a position, by itself, will result in a calming influence that will restore political stability. If it does not, it will place New Delhi in a much better position to intervene should the need arise.

And no, engaged does not mean passivity. It means the opposite.

Af-Pak insecurities and investment in the region

The challenges to India’s growth come more from the stalled economic liberalisation process than from the Af-Pak situation

Yesterday, Sarika Malhotra, a journalist from Financial Express asked me for my views on the regional security situation and the impact on investment. Here’s the exchange:

How do you think concerns regarding terrorism and political violence in AfPak, India, Sri Lanka are causing businesses to avoid investing in politically sensitive areas?

First of all, I think considering Af-Pak and India in the same breath is incorrect. Af-Pak has deep structural problems. Part of the Af-Pak problem affects India, but it’s relatively minor and not on the same scale as the “Af-Pak problem” itself.

Investors will respond to two cues: the fundamentals of the economy in the medium- to long-term and the political risks in the short term. So the impact on investment in India & Sri Lanka will be different from the impact on investment in Pakistan & Afghanistan.

In India’s case, the economic crisis and its aftermath suggest that to the extent that the Indian government competently manages economic policy, foreign investment will continue to flow into India. India is far more attractive—despite concerns over security—than many other developed and emerging economies.

Also, after almost two decades of India’s opening up to foreign investment, the world has come to better understand the political risk ‘norm’ in India. A decade ago, a travel advisory by the US State department would have panicked investors. Today it doesn’t matter as much.

Pakistan is in a negative spiral. The greater the political instability there, the greater will be the movement of wealth and people out of the country.

Conflict and instability are significant barriers to foreign direct investment—how do you view this? If you could cite some companies who have stopped their plans owing to the instable conditions in AfPak, India?

I haven’t heard of any company which have stopped their plans due to instable conditions in India. What has caused problems is the issue of land acquisition and labour reform—these are old bugbears that the presumably reformist-minded prime minister has forgotten about. SEZs, even done correctly, are not a solution.

Far more than security risks, it is the inability of the Indian government to ensure a robust property-rights regime and liberalise labour laws that drags down investment (both foreign and domestic in India)

How much of a business loss is India incurring owing to this?

I do not have estimates.

What conflict sensitive business practices can help in this regard?

The short-term response is for companies to go in for an intelligent mix of self-provisioning and co-operating with the government towards improving security of their operations, personnel and commercial interests.

But this should not be seen as an end in itself: unless corporate India consistently pressures the government to improve the overall quality of governance—including economic liberalisation, implement the Supreme Court’s order on police reforms and modernise the armed forces—both investments and returns on investments will be lower than they might otherwise have been. What this means that the competitiveness of the Indian economy will suffer. It is important for Indian corporate to compel the government to do its job, rather than substitute for it by private provisioning as has been the case in recent years.

Failed states index – a look under the hood

It’s not the ranking, it’s the change in the score

In 2005, when Foreign Policy magazine first published a failed state index, The Acorn argued that “rankings by themselves do not convey as much information as the direction of their change. How countries change their position, even by this imperfect measure, will be the thing to watch in future years.”

In fact, the rank on the league table is not so informative as the actual change in the country’s score. For instance, Pakistan’s rank improved this year (from the 9th most failing state in 2008 to the 10th in 2009). Yet, it’s total failure score increased from 103.8 to 104.1 (See the article on the magazine’s website). Assuming that the good people at Foreign Policy have used the same methodology year after year, this doesn’t suggest an improvement in Pakistan—it suggests a worsening of conditions.

Here’s a comparison of the actual score of countries in India’s neighbourhood over the last four years.

Data: Foreign Policy/Chart: The Acorn

It’s generally bad news: other than Bangladesh, state failure is worsening in the neighbourhood. Bhutan does best, but even its score has (surprisingly) fallen.

Related Post: A post on the 2006 index.

The Longbottom standard for Rajapakse

Colombo might have won the war with China’s help. It can’t win the peace without India’s

Just in case you missed it in the heat of the elections, here’s the take on the situation in Sri Lanka:

Now, while President Rajapaksa’s election manifesto promised to include in the Sri Lankan Constitution a charter to “uphold and protect social, cultural, political, economic and civil rights of all Sri Lankans”, there are some among his supporters who want to translate the LTTE’s defeat into a victory for Sinhala supremacism. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy, therefore, is to hold President Rajapaksa to the Longbottom standard: It takes a great deal of bravery for him to stand up to his enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to his friends.

How? Well, read on.

My op-ed in Mint: Leverage in Sri Lanka

A stable balance between Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups better serves India’s interests than a partitioned island

In an op-ed in Mint I suggest how India might acquire greater leverage over the Sri Lankan government and use it to shape post-civil war situation.


New Delhi’s half-apologetic, half-embarrassed attitude towards providing military assistance to Sri Lanka pushed Colombo into the arms of China, Pakistan, Iran and Libya. India was too timid to support, or oppose, any one side. As a result it not only finds itself little more than a bystander, but grasping for ways to avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilizing its domestic affairs.

It is possible to arrest this loss of leverage and, indeed, to reverse it. First, New Delhi should restate its position—to Sri Lankans as much as its own citizens—that it does not favour an independent Tamil Eelam. A stable political balance between the two main ethnic groups will better serve India’s interests than a partitioned island. Those who contend that an Eelam will be more sympathetic to India should contemplate the lessons of Bangladesh. Neither gratitude nor ethnic-cultural links will prevent a sovereign state from pursuing its interests. For India’s smaller neighbours, this means playing India against China, Pakistan or the US. Moreover, if an independent Eelam were ever to come about, its Sinhala counterpart is likely to align with China.

Second, New Delhi should signal to Colombo that it will calibrate bilateral relations to progress in rehabilitating the Tamil minority. Even as Colombo has sought to engage distant benefactors, it is aware that rebuilding its war-ravaged economy is impossible without good relations with India. Colombo needs urgent assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Given Western criticism over its human rights record, it will need India’s support to tide over even its short-term difficulties.

Third, India must play a constructive role in rebuilding Sri Lankan Tamil politics. In this regard, instead of merely grandstanding on behalf of a terrorist organization, politicians in Tamil Nadu would do well to cultivate ties with moderate Sri Lankan Tamil political formations. This would not only serve India’s interests, but also help secure peace and stability in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE’s defeat is an opportunity for India to re-craft its approach towards Sri Lanka. Unless New Delhi acts decisively, it risks its strategic frontiers being shrunk by Colombo’s wartime benefactors.[Mint]

Tamil Nadu alert

Tamil chauvinism must be prevented from taking an anti-India form

It is repugnant, but legitimate, for political groups in India to support the LTTE. It is repugnant, but legitimate for them to engage in lawful political activism to promote their cause. But it is wholly illegitimate and totally unacceptable for them to attack an Indian army convoy for any reason. So the ‘activists’ from of Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (PDK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) who attacked an Indian army convoy near Coimbatore must be dealt with utmost seriousness.

The attack itself is unusual and was quite likely to have been conducted after agents provocateurs spread rumours about the convoy carrying an arms shipment for the Sri Lankan army. Like the riot that occurred at the Madras High Court campus a few months ago, this attack suggests that an unholy nexus between Tamil chauvinist politicians and the LTTE’s supporters has not only been allowed to exist, but been given the license to carry out acts of violence against symbols of the Indian state. M Karunanidhi’s DMK government—which never made a secret of its sympathies—and the pusillanimous UPA government in New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for preventing the nexus from developing in an anti-India direction.

The Coimbatore incidents must not be repeated. The prosecution of those arrested for attacking the army trucks must carry on without ‘politicising’ it. This is possible if both the DMK and Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK agree that some lines ought not to be crossed. The chances of this happening appear slim—but without leadership and deft political management the Sri Lankan issue could destabilise Tamil Nadu for the next few years.

Getting Colombo to listen

Post-war Sri Lanka can’t do without strong bilateral ties with India

Western countries are considering blocking an US$1.9 billion IMF load to Sri Lanka, not least due to pressure from human rights groups and Tamil diaspora groups. The Sri Lankan government, whose public finances and balance of payments are under pressure both due to the war expenditure and the global economic crisis cannot hope to entirely rely on China, Pakistan, Iran and Libya—countries that have provided military and economic assistance in the last few years. Colombo knows that it needs a good bilateral relationship with India not only to drag its economy out away from the approaching rough weather, but for long-term prosperity.

Many analysts lament that New Delhi has lost its leverage over Colombo. Here’s the way to regain it: the new Indian government must calibrate its bilateral relationship with the manner to the extent it listens to India. That includes encouraging President Rajapakse to rapidly move towards reconciliation, face down triumphal Sinhala chauvinism and deliver on his manifesto promise of equal rights for all Sri Lankans.

Some species are better extinct

How the LTTE damaged the Sri Lankan Tamil cause

More than a generation has grown up without knowing what the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987 was all about. Shekhar Gupta does well to remind us just why there is no need to shed any tears for the LTTE:

Bipin Joshi and I had many conversations on this subsequently, particularly after he took over as army chief (and where he died, tragically, of a heart attack while still in service). He still argued he was right in his description of the LTTE. If they were not macho and irrational, he said, why would they defend Jaffna against a full-fledged army in a conventional manner, a battle they were destined to lose — which they did. No clever, well-led guerrilla force would commit such a blunder, you can’t create a Stalingrad with sneak and ambush, he would say. The LTTE’s (ultimately) disastrous defence of Jaffna, he said, was the starkest example of this cruel, macho irrationality that cared little for human life, theirs or the enemy’s.

In this moment of the LTTE’s destruction and defeat you can’t but reflect on that. What kind of people take on an entire nation’s modern army, in the face of total worldwide opprobrium to their terrorist ways and unmindful of the plight of the Tamils whose cause they professed to be fighting for? Only people driven by violent madness, militaristic fascism, the suicide-bomber cult, for whom killing is not a means to the end, but the very purpose of living. Over two and a half decades, the LTTE has killed literally tens of thousands, a majority of them Tamil. They invented the human bomb and used one to kill the one man (Rajiv Gandhi) who staked his name and reputation and his country’s might and resources to find for their fellow Tamils a peaceful and just settlement. But obviously, that is not what the LTTE and its megalomaniac supremo had wanted. All they wanted was killing, killing and more killing. For Prabhakaran, peace talks were just a cynical tactic to recover, regroup and rearm whenever the going got tough. When the IPKF, under Lt Gen Amar Kalkat, had got the better of him decisively and controlled all inhabited areas, driving him into his Kilinochchi dugout (from which the Sri Lankans have just prised him out) he made common cause with President Premadasa, one of the cruellest and most pathologically anti-Tamil Sinhala leaders ever. Together they got rid of the IPKF — with help from a sudden turn in Tamil Nadu politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat and the arrival in power, in Delhi and Chennai, respectively, of a hopelessly lily-livered V.P. Singh and a Karunanidhi almost as cynical as Vaiko is now. That done, Premadasa too was blown up by a teenaged LTTE human bomb, and how bomb and target got into such close proximity is a story too sordid to be told in a family newspaper even in these permissive times. [IE]