DEVELOPMENTS in India’s neighbourhood have forced Indian diplomats to be on their toes for most of this year. Unfolding events in South Asia are testing two tenets that guided New Delhi’s interactions with its backyard for some time. One is the so-called Gujral Doctrine, which took its name from Inder Kumar Gujral during his second term in office as External Affairs Minister and a brief tenure as Prime Minister. Giving up reciprocity in relations with neighbours — except Pakistan — was the guiding principle of this doctrine. The second idea being tested is competing with China in South Asia.
The noises about threats to India from the Maldives make for a typical storm in a teacup. It is in such situations that the Gujral Doctrine can kick in.
Of the two, the second requires a deep and objective analysis because it has the potential to trap India into a wasteful and negative neighbourhood policy. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, journalists in India were learning to cope with new foreign policy realities. For decades, they covered a beat where certainties of foreign policy were unshakeable — non-alignment, friendship with the Soviet Union, opacity in exercising the nuclear option and so on. For a while, the Soviet guarantee of a veto on Kashmir in the United Nations Security Council gave way to ambiguity under then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his West-leaning Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. So, it came by rote for reporters covering the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in those years to ask every visiting foreign leader if the Kashmir issue should be settled through India-Pakistan bilateral talks or via UN resolutions. Germany’s Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the world’s longest serving Foreign Minister at that time, famously mocked an Indian journalist who asked this unmissable question in New Delhi. Genscher replied that he was in New Delhi for bilateral discussions on developing relations with India. He wondered why his visit was being turned into a trilateral one. He stated that his focus was on India, while Pakistan did not figure in these discussions, except maybe in passing for ‘three minutes’.
Pundits now similarly see China’s shadow over every external action by Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. No television debate about India’s neighbourhood is complete without an anchor asking at least one question about the hidden China hand. In many bilateral meetings, America’s officials conjure up fearful scenarios against India in South Asia as the result of Beijing’s alleged quest for hegemony in the region. At one such meeting, visiting officials from Washington told their Indian counterparts that Myanmar — intensely despised by successive US administrations — was building a nuclear weapon with China’s help. These officials wanted India to do something about this emerging neighbourhood nuclear threat. An exasperated Indian diplomat asked the Americans where they were and what they were doing when Pakistan was building its nuclear bombs with China’s help. Washington turned a blind eye to China-Pakistan collusion in nuclear proliferation, the diplomat alleged, according to accounts of that meeting conveyed to this writer. The Americans quickly changed the subject because, for them, it was embarrassingly true.
Similar refrains are carefully choreographed by American lobbies in India with the objective of pushing New Delhi into joining an anti-China alliance in Asia led by the US. So far, India has resisted. But a constant barrage through public forums about a China bogey can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Chinese establishment takes the Indian media seriously, more so now because of the perception that it projects the views of those who rule India. This is not entirely true. Business lobbies, weapons lobbies, global human rights campaigners and other similar interests vie for space in India’s public discourse. Where they all converge is in campaigns against China. It is necessary to look at these campaigns with open eyes and try to contain them. Otherwise, India may be pushed into a needlessly fierce competition — an arms race not excluded — with China in South Asia.
When Nepal’s PM Pushpa Kamal ‘Prachanda’ Dahal signed a dozen agreements in China in September, the outcry in some sections of public opinion in India was that Kathmandu was choosing between Beijing and New Delhi. It was simply not true. These agreements do not constitute any threat to Indian interests in Nepal. The outcry was shriller last month when Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji visited Beijing. In this case, there was at least the fig leaf that historically Thimphu’s foreign policy was determined in New Delhi. There is also the additional issue of an unsettled border between China and Bhutan. New Delhi has an interest in this border settlement, which could have security implications for India’s North-East. A border settlement between China and Bhutan will leave India as the only country with which China has a disputed border. This is not good for Sino-Indian relations. An ongoing visit by the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck — he is travelling from India’s east to west and then to the north — ought to disabuse habitual China-baiters that Bhutan is about to flip from the Indian camp to that of China.
In Bangladesh, the threat to stable and good neighbourly relations with India comes from the US, not from China. It is in India’s internal security interests and for the protection of the North-East that Sheikh Hasina Wazed is re-elected Prime Minister when a general election takes place there in January 2024. The US wants regime change in Dhaka. The Joe Biden administration does not care that the change will bring Islamist fundamentalist forces opposed to good relations with India to power. Just as the US did not care that regime change in Iraq, Libya and Tunisia put radical Islamists in charge. The noises about threats to India from the Maldives make for a typical storm in a teacup. It is in such situations that the Gujral Doctrine can kick in. India can afford to be generous to the small island nation without insisting on reciprocity. That is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to greet President-elect Mohamed Muizzu. India’s High Commissioner in Male was the first foreign diplomat to call on Muizzu. Some years ago, when the government changed in Kuala Lumpur, doors of the new cabinet ministers were closed for the Indian envoy. That is not happening in Male. Realpolitik will require that India-Maldives relations see no fundamental changes.
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