India Faces New Political Configurations in the Neighbourhood
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

Many unexpected but important developments are taking place in India’s neighbourhood. New political dispensations with new agendas have emerged in Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan. Besides, one would have to await the elections in Bangladesh in the next few months. Presidential elections are due in Afghanistan next year. India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy will have to take into account these changes and tweaked, if need be.

Sri Lanka has been plunged into a deep constitutional crisis. President Maithripala Srisena unexpectedly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickramsinghe soon after the latter returned from India from a visit. This was due to the simmering tensions between the two for a long time. He appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, his arch-rival, against whom he had won the presidential election in 2015, as the new prime minister. The parliament has been suspended temporarily. Whether these moves are in accordance with the constitution or not remains to be seen. The stunning return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a two-term president, who is perceived to be authoritarian but also credited for ending the Tamil insurgency, is a development of great importance. Sri Lanka is likely to see political instability in the coming months. Some incidents of violence have also taken place. A prominent cabinet minister has reportedly been confined. During Rajapaksa’s rule, Sri Lanka had tilted heavily in favour of China. The Indian Government, surprised as any one else at the developmnts in Sri Lanka, has gone into wait and watch mode.

Bhutan’s elections threw up a major surprise. People’s Democratic Party, the ruling party, lost all the seats. A party with no presence in the previous parliament, the Druk Nyamrup Party (DNT), has emerged as the majority party with 30 seats, followed by Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party with 17 seats in a 47-seat house. India-Bhutan relations are good and expected to remain so but an untried, untested leader will be at the helm. China is waiting to make an entry into Bhutan. India will need to engage with the new government in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.

Election results in the Maldives were equally unexpected. The strongman Abdulla Yameen, who had carried out many unconstitutional acts in order to win a second term, lost to Ibrahim Mohammed Solih of Maldives Democratic Party, a man hardly known outside the Maldives. The new president is scheduled to take oath in November. Will he correct the Maldives’ heavy tilt to China, which had caused major concern in India? India has welcomed the election results but it would have to wait and see how the new president shapes up the Maldives’ policies. China can be expected to reach out to the new president in the hope that the projects granted to China by Yameen are not canceled. In the meanwhile, India has welcomed his elections. There is a lot at stake in the Maldives for India.

The new government in Nepal has settled down. Prime Minster Oli stoked the Nepali nationalism during the elections and was handsomely rewarded for that. He used the so-called ‘blockade’ of Nepal by India as a winning card in the elections. PM Oli has visited both India and China. There is an effort to strike a balance between India and China in Nepal’s policies. However, China’s presence in Nepal is growing rapidly. Nepal has welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is going in for much closer relations with China.

Pakistan-India relations are in the deep freeze with little hope of any forward movement thanks largely due to Pakistan’s continuing support for terrorism. Prime Minister Imran Khan has put Kashmir right at the center of bilateral relations and has taken no steps to indicate that Pakistan's support to terrorism again India will end any time soon. All restrictions on the movement of Hafeez Saeed and on Jamaat-ul-Dawah (JUD) have been removed by a presidential decree. China has once again been non-cooperative in the designation of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist on UN’s list. ¬¬¬¬¬Imran Khan has shown some success in getting the $ 6 billion worth of much needed economic aid from Saudi Arabia. This will provide Pakistan some respite but it may still have to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These developments do not bode well for India. In the meanwhile, it would seem that the US, which had announced a strict policy for Pakistan, may have to amend it due to compulsions in respect of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is also in a churn. Violence committed by the Taliban remains extraordinarily high. The US is unable to win the war militarily and is now directly negotiating with the Taliban. The Taliban, who now control about a fifth of Afghanistan’s territory, have sensed the US weakness. Moreover, they are being wooed not only by Russia but also by Iran. China, Central Asian Republics and others feel that a political settlement with the Taliban is long overdue. The Afghan government is keen on a political settlement. Therefore, it would not be a surprise if the Taliban find themselves in power if the US decides to leave Afghanistan. The situation is unclear. India can only wait and watch. It has little influence on the political dynamics in Afghanistan.

Bangladesh is expected to go to parliamentary elections in the next few months. Although the Awami League government has many achievements to its credit, the anti-incumbency factor is also at play. The threat of radicalisation is potent. The opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), unlike the last time around, is not expected to boycott the next elections. This makes the outcome of the elections unclear. If a BNP led alliance comes to power, that would mark a new phase in the India Bangladesh relations which have improved markedly in the last 10 years.

In the past four years since the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy of India has been in operation, many changes have taken place. Underlying these changes are two key factors. The political dynamic in the neighbouring countries involving new faces is evolving rapidly and China’s footprint is expanding at a rapid pace. Both these present a challenge to policy makers in India.

India would need to assess these changes properly to craft a suitable policy. How should India approach these changes?

Pakistan has not changed its views about Kashmir or support to terrorism. Imran Khan is a hardliner, a populist and leans towards fundamentalists. India’s policy that terror and talks cannot go together is a sound one. India should continue to follow that. India will also need to factor in the increasing dependence of Pakistan on China. China-Pakistan nexus is strengthening.

India should let the political dynamic in the neighbouring countries to play out by itself. It should not be seen as a factor in the politics of these countries. It should monitor the situation but stay aloof. Lacking deep pockets, India should not enter into any competition with China in these countries. China is coming with big money, big projects and a good record of delivery. Many countries are now aware of the debt trap that Chinese loans can lead them into. They know that Chinese loans come with hard conditions. They will have to make their own judgment on how to deal with China. But they should be sensitised that their relationship with China should not be at the expense of India.

At the same time, not doing anything is not an option. India has substantial socio-economic relationship with its neighbours. It has contributed significantly to the growth of these countries. India should do what it does best – offer socio-economic assistance, build connectivities, facilitate trade, offer scholarships, promote tourism, provide access to its healthcare facilities and build national capacities of these countries. It is necessary to build people-to-people contacts by forging strong institutional mechanisms in the social sectors as well. India can also promote regional cooperation through BIMSTEC and BBIN. India can share its scientific and technological capabilities with its neighbours. In other words, India should not allow itself to be pitted against China in every field, but continue with its engagement with the neighbours in mutual interest.

India has natural advantages in South Asia, that of geography and culture. These cannot be taken away. India should be ready to deal with any government that comes to power in these countries. Engagement with new leaders should be stepped up. At the same time, India should support and align with the democratic forces in these countries. Engagement with the youth, women, farmers and civil society should be stepped up. New ideas for cooperation will be needed. But, even more important is the need to improve the delivery. India should be careful not to overpromise and deliver in time what has been promised.

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