India’s influence has cratered over the last decade. Significantly diluted by external interference, competing powers have built strong military relationships and gained access to key ports. A String of Pearls girds the Indian Ocean, while the mountains bristle with highways and ballistic missiles. The strategic fruits of 1971 have been frittered away from a weak state, overridden by parochial concerns, sandwiched between ad hoc reactions and political gain. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a significant gesture in refocusing foreign policy towards realpolitik. It is now time to revive South Asian amity.
Kautilya’s shadgunya (six-fold) theory prescribes six attributes to foreign policy. A nation should make peace with a stronger one, stay quiet when a rival is equal or more in strength and seek shelter when depleted in power. It ought to use to sama (friendship), dama (gifts), bheda (division) and danda (punishment) to recalibrate its neighbourhood. This ancient strategy is apt for this moment.
Bhutan has been left bereft. A country that is emphatically a model neighbour, it faces similar tensions with China, with claims on the Doklam Plateau, adjacent to India’s Chicken’s Neck area, serving as a strategic threat. Beijing continues to build roads and infrastructure on Bhutanese territory, seeking an altitude advantage. Joint hydropower projects like the 600-MW Kholongchu, 770-MW Chamkarchu, 570-MW Wangchu and 180-MW Bunakha plants have languished, with economic viability reviews pending. Bhutan should be offered greater infrastructure development and a better price for such electricity exports. Losing it is not an option.
India should have a special relationship with Bangladesh. Squandering this potential, due to illegal migration, state-level parochialism and water disputes, has left our North-east wracked with insurgencies and poverty. The Land Boundary Protocol, dating back to the Mujib-Indira LBA of 1974, which addresses the issues of enclaves, exchanges 111 inaccessible enclaves for 51, reduces border conflict, opens up transit and builds regional trust. While necessary constitutional amendments would need to be made, closure on this border dispute would provide mutual benefits. Water-sharing agreements should be explored to ensure equitable distribution. The creation of a special transit facility by the Bangladesh government for shipment of food to Tripura is a welcome step. Illegal migration will only diminish through a close economic partnership, helping to revive Kolkata as a South East Asian hub. The road to Myanmar and Singapore goes through Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka shows reluctance in implementing the ‘Thirteenth Amendment’ in its Constitution, offering greater autonomy to its ethnic Tamils. It must be held to account on this. However, our trade partnership needs to expand as well, with the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, liberalising trade in services and investments, ripe for finalisation. Investments in energy and infrastructure, particularly a proposed bridge across the Ram Setu and a common electricity grid, would elevate this relationship. Higher Indian economic growth will also carry Sri Lanka along, with our tourists mingling in its casinos.
The Maldives has been heavily courted by China. A new port facility, at Uthuru Thila Falhu, northwest of the Maldives capital Male, will provide ship berthing facilities and include naval repair stations. Our shared regional interests and our combined naval security should make India the ideal partner in this project. The airport cancellation fiasco should not be repeated. Islamic radicalism is on the rise there. The String of Pearls continues to enlarge, with China’s proposed Maritime Silk Route an ingenious way of disguising naval outreach. India’s influence should prevail in its ocean.
The West is accepting Iran and we should not shy away. The strategically located Chabbar port, just outside the Persian Gulf, is being built along with a vast petrochemical complex. With an SEZ on offer, India should make strategic investments in this port, helping to build a direct shipping route to Kandla and increase LNG imports. Tehran’s revised oil and gas incentives should draw Indian investments, particularly in the upstream sector. While the bitterness of India’s ad hoc voting against Iran in the UN remains, trade should be boosted; creating a hub for transit to Central Asia.
India has invested blood and treasure in stabilising Afghanistan. However, the Taliban’s rehabilitation, despite the Haqqani Network’s continued terrorism against Indian consulates, is paradoxical. Returning them to power, even in a coalition, would undo Afghanistan’s shaky democracy. With the upcoming US withdrawal, a concert of nations should help stabilise Afghanistan, providing it with budgetary support, infrastructure investments, linkages to Iran and Central Asia and security training. India has its part to play here.
Pakistan will continue to be a vexed neighbour. With recent attacks on the naval base and airports in Karachi, the Pakistani deep state will soon have to engage in a power struggle. Quick wins can be achieved by agreeing on Siachen and Sir Creek and expanding trade. With the Pakistani military increasingly tied up, talks should be held with Nawaz Sharif. The Most Favoured Nation status should be granted by Pakistan. Making some borders irrelevant, through increased trade and transit, should be initiated. Kashmir, however, will have to wait for another generation.
Saarc needs to be revived, with the Safta and the South Asian University given additional impetus. Our shared cultural heritage should be celebrated, through visa-free travel and PIO-like benefits. Rebuilding our relationships, through a just combination of Kautilya’s four precepts will require strong leadership, with a realpolitik sense of the national interest. Fate has given India a strong government again. This opportunity should not be frittered away. India’s diplomats remain too few. India’s hard power remains scattered. With a fresh approach at the Centre, this will hopefully be set straight.