India has long been accused of being the regional hegemon that often tries to intervene in the internal affairs of its smaller South Asian neighbours, or bully them into doing its bidding. Many of the country’s neighbours maintain that the various Indian institutions, especially its bureaucracy, continue to think and behave like the erstwhile British Empire. While there may or may not be some truth in that, recent developments in the region tell a different story altogether.
The Maldivian government recently decided to declare the multi-year contract that it had signed with the India-based G. M. Rao Group to run their international airport, and did so unilaterally without heeding to requests from New Delhi to reconsider its decision. India’s new External Affairs Minister Salman Kurshid’s calls to his counterpart in Maldives did not manage to convince the country to alter its decision. Remember, India provides a great deal of economic and military assistance to the tiny state in the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, last year when the then President of Maldives was dethroned in a not-so-proper manner, he had asked India to intervene and reinstate him as the President. He was widely considered to be close to India, but New Delhi did nothing. It simply did not want to interfere in the internal politics of another sovereign country. Reports now indicate, or least G. M Rao, the head of GMR Group, claims, that ‘foreign hands’ – meaning Chinese – were responsible for the ouster of the GMR Group from Maldives.
Take the case of Sri Lanka. Developments in the last few years show that the island county, which recently managed to militarily defeat the LTTE, is no more dependent on or tolerant of India as it used to for many decades in the past including officially requesting India to intervene in its internal affairs to defeat the LTTE. India did not even provide Colombo with weapons let alone actively intervening Sri Lanka’s civil war after its intervention there in the late 1980s went terribly wrong. But the Chinese sensed an opportunity and helped Colombo, again. Now, as a result, Colombo and Sri Lanka are getting closer by the day.
In Myanmar, prior to its ongoing transition phase (of becoming a normal mature democracy), India was asked by the democratic forces there including its leader Ang San Sukyi and the international community, though in indirect terms, to play a role in leading Myanmar towards democracy. India did not do so primarily because of the Chinese closeness to Myanmar’s junta. India feared that if it went against the ruling military regime in Myanmar it would pave the way for an increased involvement of China there which would be against India’s strategic interests. Nor could India make up its mind to support the Junta fearing reprisals from the pro-democracy activists and the international community. As a result, India did not have traction with either of the groups, the junta or the pro-democracy groups. India was losing out either way. Ang San Sukyi said in a recent interview in New Delhi that she had wished that India had done more to help the cause of democracy in Myanmar.
What do all these mean? Is India really losing its influence and sway in the region? For the land of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was one of the most respected world leaders of his time, an architect of the Non Aligned Movement and contributed a great deal to resolving many international conflicts, these failures in the neighbourhood can be seen as a historic low. For a country that is so often criticized for its hegemonic behavior in the neighbourhood, it doesn’t even seem to be able to take care of its genuine business interests in the region.
What explains this incongruence between perceptions and results in the Indian behavior towards the region? There seem to be a number of variables at play here. First of all, there is a clear Chinese angle here which offsets the Indian efforts in the region. China is willing to extend military, economic and other forms of help to the various South Asian states with hardly any preconditions attached. Their fundamental objective is strategic leverage and economic benefit in the pursuit of which they are willing to forgo ethical and human rights considerations. Chinese involvement in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are clear examples of that. This has frustrated the Indian policy in the region since India is constrained by a number of non-strategic and non-economic factors in its foreign policy pursuits. The second aspect is the lack of institutional coordination and the general lack of foreign policy purpose. Often there is no cohesive and consultative foreign and foreign economic strategy making by the various concerned Indian institutions in India.
Thirdly, Indian foreign policy pursuits and behaviour are severely hamstrung by deeply ingrained normative considerations and moral dilemmas that the country has inherited over many decades of its independence as well as from its own non-violent freedom struggle. For India, its foreign policy decisions and commitments have to pass the test of its moral preconditions and ethical standards. This means that apart from the fact that it would find it difficult to interfere in the internal affairs of another state and support regimes that violate human rights of its people, it would also find it difficult to forgo its peaceful and defensive posturing to engage in force projection outside its borders. These self-perceived moral and ethical aspects are now further ‘complicated’ by India’s openness to and interface with various international normative standards.
There are no easy answers to any of these dilemmas faced by India especially when there is another actor that is quite willing to operate under a completely different set of standards which gives a certain ‘freedom of choice’ to the many states of India’s neighbourhood.
(SOurce: Greater Kashmir, December 23, 2012. URL: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/2012/Dec/23/india-s-regional-dilemmas-21.asp )