“India has become a joke in the Maldives, a foe in Sri Lanka, a doubt in Bangladesh, a shrug in Nepal, a snigger in Pakistan and a taunt in China,” wrote MJ Akbar about the twilight of Manmohan Singh’s decade-long reign. It was May 2013 and Narendra Modi had not been sworn in as India’s 14th Prime Minister yet.
Today, one year into Modi’s term, what the editor-turned-BJP spokesman and now Rajya Sabha member, had to say about Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy — or the lack of it — could very well describe how Narendra Modi’s India is perceived in South Asia and beyond.
Developments in Maldives are challenging the limits of India’s influence in its own backyard; the military and civilian leaderships in Pakistan are testing India’s patience; New Delhi is the proverbial villain in the Himalayan republic of Nepal which is roiled by political uncertainty; religious radicalisation and extremism is flourishing under the stewardship of Sheikh Hasina; India’s strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, a first for that war torn country, is floundering; a reset with Sri Lanka is still a work in progress; and New Delhi’s China policy is all at sea even as Beijing thumbs its nose at India by embedding itself deeper into infrastructure projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Suffice it to say, from the depths of the Indian Ocean to the highest reaches of the Himalayas, India runs the risk of becoming an apology. Modi increasingly resembles a George W Bush, for whom the world was black and white. Remember the Bushism – ‘You are either with us or against us’? Modi is falling prey to the same tendency when he cavorts with or serenades leaders he thinks he can do business with. However, Modi, and by extension, India, have learnt at considerable expense that Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan is no Hamid Karzai; and Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of Maldives is no Mohamed Nasheed. And yet, New Delhi has not given any indication yet that it has gotten over the practice of putting all its (diplomatic) eggs in one basket. We saw that with Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh; we are seeing it happen in Sri Lanka with President Maithripala Sirisena and newly elected prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
India’s propensity or predisposition to cherry-pick political leaders or political parties is counter-productive in that it immediately sets off one against the othother and invites avoidable comparisons between rival protagonists. It is instructive to recall what Deb Mukharji, a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, told this columnist some time ago: “I don’t think Hasina is pro-India. I don’t think Sheikh Mujib was pro-India. And I think when we say that, we are indeed doing her a disservice. I think whatever Sheikh Hasina is doing is in the enlightened self-interest of Bangladesh. Let’s be clear on that.” Mukharji did not stop at that; he was of the view that both in principle and in practice, it makes eminent sense for India to retain an open dialogue with Khaleda Zia and her party.
By the same token, it behoves of India to maintain at the very least sub rosa contacts with all shades of political opinion in its proximate and extended neighbourhood. Also, the diplomats tasked with implementing India’s foreign policy would do well to avoid Pavlovian responses to situations. A far-sighted, non-prescriptive and consistent neighbourhood policy should be the Modi government’s immediate task at hand.
The time for words has come and gone; now India needs to act and resolutely at that. If, as Modi said in the Rajya Sabha during a debate on the President’s address to Parliament, “Hum aankh jhuka kar jeena pasand nahi karte aur aankh dikha kar bhi rishtey nahi bantey. Hum aankh mila kar chalna chahtey hain”, then the time for walking the talk is now. Otherwise, India’s ties with Pakistan, for instance, will continue to oscillate like a pendulum between, to quote Sushma Swaraj, a comma and a semi-colon!