Hotspots in neighbourhood

Instability in Sri Lanka, Pakistan & Afghanistan consequential to national security

Hotspots in neighbourhood

Chaos: The recent developments in Sri Lanka impact Indian interests, but New Delhi’s capacity to influence the course of events is very varied. Reuters

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

Three ‘hotspots’ have emerged almost simultaneously in India’s neighbourhood — in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are daunting and each seems more intractable than the other. But they are very consequential to India’s national security. The democratic foundations in Sri Lanka have been historically rock solid through the past seven decades since the country was granted independence by the British in 1948. The democratic temper of governance managed to survive the quarter century-long brutal civil war. But the country’s political system is no longer indefatigable.

India will have to follow a policy of proactivism to prevent another arena for geopolitical confrontation.

In comparison, the regime change in Pakistan was of a contrived nature, most certainly engineered from abroad, resulting in the overthrow of a hugely popular prime minister. Alas, Pakistan was inching close to creating the precedent of an elected government completing its term in office, a signpost of progression of the fragile democratic institutions. As for Afghanistan, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon and the spectre of an ‘anti-Taliban resistance’ may come to haunt the country with the danger of a Somalia-like situation appearing in vast swathes of the South Asian region.

These developments impact Indian interests in manifold ways but Delhi’s capacity to influence the course of events is very varied. Of the three countries, in regard to Pakistan, for obvious reasons, India may have to swim with the tide of events, but here too, there should be clarity of thinking as to what constitutes a preferred outcome that may fall short of the ideal but agreeable enough.

India’s interest doubtless lies in Pakistan remaining under democratic rule. Elected governments are accountable to the people and the priorities, dreams and aspirations of the Pakistani people are very similar to those of Indians. The present state of affairs in Pakistan will turn out to be untenable for any length of time. Politics needs to be inclusive at all times, for good or bad, and the sensible thing to do will be to conduct a free and fair election as soon as possible so that a new government enjoying the mandate of the people can be formed.

When it comes to Sri Lanka, the government can afford to be forthright in signalling the high importance India attaches to the preservation of democratic rule in that country. It did the right thing by underscoring its support for ‘democracy, stability and economic recovery’ — in that pecking order. Democracy becomes a prerequisite for the country’s durable stability that is basic to the difficult journey ahead toward economic recovery.

Meanwhile, for the first time, there is speculation that in the emergent situation where the state institutions and political elite stand discredited and the people’s faith in the political system as such is badly shaken, a military takeover is entirely conceivable. Not even in the darkest hours of that country’s tortuous history during the civil war, such a dangerous thought would have crossed anyone’s mind.

The gravity of the situation should not be underestimated, as India and Sri Lanka are joined at the hips, as it were, which also has a painful history. Going forward, it becomes crucial to foresee that an army takeover will be disastrous for Sri Lanka’s future. It can only open up the Pandora’s box, and slumbering demons will wake up — state terrorism, ethnic, religious and regional divides, etc. — and anarchy will be loosed upon the island. India has risen to the occasion by generously offering multi-billion dollar bridging finance for the Sri Lankan economy to tackle its immediate crisis.

But India should be explicit that its obligation is all toward the people of Sri Lanka. That old evasive, stoical mantra — ‘Delhi will deal with whoever is in power in Colombo’ — is best avoided, as its connotation today is fraught with a terrible beauty. Which is to say, alongside the crisis management of the economy to ensure it doesn’t collapse, India should also give a helping hand for the democratic transition via fresh elections. In Ranil Wickremesinghe, fortuitously, India has a friendly, trusted interlocutor.

As regards Afghanistan, there are limits to what India can do to arrest the slide toward another civil war. But there are also things that India can do. Principally, India should not remain passive. The reopening of the embassy in Kabul is an urgent necessity. The Taliban is keenly seeking a constructive relationship. By now it is clear that terrorists are not able to operate against India from bases in Afghanistan; nor, to put it mildly, can Taliban be viewed as a proxy of the Pakistani establishment.

The Taliban’s policies are zigzagging due to differences of opinion internally. But as the latest signal that the recent restrictions on women are being reviewed testifies that the Taliban is amenable to persuasion and international opinion. Of course, it is unrealistic to overlook the traditions and culture of Afghan society. A Taliban-led government will have ‘Afghan characteristics’. What matters is its legitimacy in Afghan eyes. The Taliban may be open to holding a Loya Jirga in the best traditions of Afghan history, which can be a step forward for international recognition, given the general acceptance by the world community that the situation ought to be settled through intra-Afghan dialogue. India should begin a serious conversation with the Taliban leadership. Perhaps it could invite someone of the stature of Anas Haqqani to visit Delhi. India’s interests lie in shoring up Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.

India should do whatever it takes to prevent another arena for geopolitical confrontation in its neighbourhood. Perhaps the presence of Dr Abdullah in Delhi provides an opportunity to shift to a more active mode in India’s policy toward the situation in Afghanistan.

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