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Neighbours keep distance from Delhi

New Delhi, Jan. 1: As South Block mandarins continue to grapple with the problem of Pakistan’s brinkmanship on the nuclear issue, a fact staring the Indian foreign policy establishment in the face is Delhi’s miserable failure in managing its neighbourhood.

To add to India’s problems with Pakistan, fresh strains have also crept into its ties with Bangladesh and Nepal. About Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan, policy makers in Delhi are almost clueless.

When Yashwant Sinha took over as foreign minister in June last year, he began his stint in South Block with a visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. The signal then was loud and clear: Indian foreign policy would focus on, among other things, the neighbourhood and in strengthening relations with its South Asian neighbours.

However, six months down the line, Delhi’s neighbourhood policy lies in shambles, raising serious doubts whether India, which cannot manage its immediate neighbours, can play a meaningful role in international affairs.

The strain in India-Pakistan relations is well known and is also perhaps better understood. That the two countries have so far managed to avert a war, despite coming so close to doing so, is something that the outside world can cheer about.

However, Delhi’s relations with its other neighbours have worsened far more than expected in the last one year.

Nowhere is this more glaring than in India’s relations with Bangladesh. By publicly charging the BNP government of harbouring not only Northeast insurgents but also al Qaida and ISI operatives, Delhi has lost whatever leverage it had with Dhaka. If in the past Delhi had any hopes of getting Bangladesh’s cooperation in dealing with militants based on its soil, they have been dashed by the repeated accusations made against the Khaleda Zia government by the Indian leadership over the past few months.

“If there is a secret ballot among Saarc members to choose their favourite country, India will perhaps be at the bottom of the list,” says a foreign policy expert. “The way we have allowed our policy with the neighbours to drift is a sad commentary on the importance we attach to our relations with them.”

South Block, however, waves away such criticism with the customary argument that India cannot be expected to be apologetic about its size and the apprehensions of many of the neighbours, which more often than not results in hostility because of the “small neighbour-big neighbour” syndrome.

“We have been more than generous with most of our neighbours. But some of them are not willing to keep Indian sensitivity and security concerns in mind. This is what has contributed to the problem in our relations with some of the neighbours,” a senior foreign ministry official said.

Many of the neighbours contest this view. They argue that what Delhi gives with one hand it takes away with the other.

Despite promises by the Indian leadership, the domestic business lobby has managed to restrict free access to the country’s huge market by smaller neighbours. This has, in turn, created a situation where the trade gap between India and its neighbours has been ever increasing.

In the last year or so, the image of “ugly Indian” is back with a bang in most South Asian countries. A situation has been created where most countries in the region are today either trying to look for stronger allies to counter India or are keen to keep a safe distance from Delhi, not willing to allow India to come in and meddle in their affairs.

But even this India cannot do successfully. In Bhutan, despite promises by Thimphu, Bodo militants continue to run their camps in Bhutanese territory. The King had made several attempts to ensure that the armed rebels leave his country. However, so far there is nothing to suggest that he has met with much success. Maldives is too far and perhaps, relatively quite and peaceful to create major problems for India.

The peace that Sri Lanka is about to achieve after years of ethnic strife in the island is mainly because of western initiative and not India.

The Indian leadership may claim that this was done deliberately as its involvement in a process where the Ltte is a key factor may have caused serious domestic problems. However, in Nepal, where it has no such compulsions, Delhi’s lack of interest is being criticised by all major players in the Nepalese political theatre.

By allowing things to drift in Kathmandu, India is faced with a situation where neither the palace, nor the democratic forces or the Maoists are close to Delhi. On the contrary, all three look at India with suspicion and leave it with no political leverage in Nepal.

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