India’s Democratic Non-Imperative

The second Manmohan Singh government had a relatively ambitious neighborhood policy: a goal of a peaceful periphery that it understood, as previous governments had, was a necessary prerequisite to India being able to play a more proactive role in the international system.

At the heart of it was an early quid pro quo: cooperate with India on security issues and New Delhi would provide access to its burgeoning economy. As countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and, to some degree, Myanmar signed up for this — and fortuitously a couple of the region’s civil wars wound to a close — India’s ambitions grew.

First, it sought to get outstanding bilateral issues resolved with pro-India governments that had the mandate to do so. Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina government, with its 80 percent parliamentary sweep, was the best opportunity. Nepal has seen a similar window open up after its last elections. Second, New Delhi considered trying to take it further and forge a political consensus in some of these countries to treat India as primes inter pares in the global arena. Sri Lanka was the best example, though India had hopes for the Maldives. Third, India contemplated the support of democratic polity in these countries as a means to consolidate the above gains. New Delhi would serve as an unspoken guarantor of democracy in these countries, ensuring a legitimization of polities that had accepted an India First policy.

But it has all gone sour. The Indian economy is in terrible shape, even worse than its growth figures indicate. The Singh government was in still worse shape politically. The neighborhood policy began to unravel.

When a constitutional coup was staged in the Maldives, India dithered on interference and eventually allowed the regime of Mohammed Nasheed to fall. It allowed Tamil parties to dictate Sri Lanka policy despite Colombo’s record of working with India as much as possible. Singh’s first trip to Myanmar was sullied by a protocol hissy fit over whether Aung San Suu Kyi should call on Singh rather than the reverse. The sense was that the Singh government’s neighboured policy was falling apart because of shortsighted political concerns or simple lack of focus at the highest level.

So it was no surprise, I suppose, that New Delhi also began to reslide on the idea of being a democracy guarantor as well. In Bangladesh, India has passively accepted what amounts to a democratic farce, ensuring an illegitimate and thus violence-prone government to come to power. Its officials say they were in no position to stop Sheikh Hasina from this path. They also argue that a change in government would have meant Islamists in government and an undoing of the security gains of recent years.

The sense of a policy thrown together as the pillars that had held up the earlier, more ambitious and strategically-minded neighborhood policy crumbled is hard to avoid.

All is not lost: Nepal looks promising, Myanmar is moving slowly forward and Sri Lanka seems to have concluded it can wait out the present policy mess in New Delhi. But Bangladesh is a train wreck that will continue until new elections are held. Presumably, Khaleda Zia will have no reason to continue India-friendly policies after all this. India’s neighborhood policy is regressing — and the gains it has made on the security front these past few years are in jeopardy.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times

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