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GENEROUS NEIGHBOUR

- India has to take a long hard look at its foreign policy

Internally, much can improve with the spectacular electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party. India can now look forward to a strong and stable government at the Centre which the weak coalition governments of recent years failed to provide. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen as strong-minded, resolute and purposeful, raising fortified prospects of effective decision-making, policy implementation, economic management and internal security superintendence.

Externally, this will bring dividends too, given the linkage between domestic strength and confident conduct in foreign affairs. But triumphing over adversaries abroad is different from defeating political opponents at home. Internally, local insurgencies apart, issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity are not in contention. The country’s Constitution provides legal authority to deal with opponents, which is not available in dealing with external challengers, as international law is frequently violated and enforcement is weak. The size of the electoral victory can change the rapport of political forces at home, but other than strengthening the political image of the leader abroad in the short term, it does not affect external equations durably. In democracies, military strength is not needed to assert political authority at home; but to assert it abroad, military muscle is vital. Alliances erected against one’s country by enemies cannot be countered merely by electoral success at home, however impressive. Threats emanating from terrorism, religious extremism and proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles cannot be repulsed by the strength of the electoral mandate; nor does that provide an answer to energy security issues.

The nature of external challenges being different from internal ones, the acumen in understanding domestic politics may not be sufficient for grasping the complexities of international affairs, though a clear-headed leader with a discriminating mind can always handle foreign affairs competently with experience and good counsel.

The uniting bonds of citizenship and shared commitment to the nation can justify kindness towards domestic political opponents, but generosity towards foreign countries is not an established principle guiding foreign relations. Externally, all countries are expected to pursue their interests single-mindedly because it is considered axiomatic that in international relations there are no friends or enemies, only permanent national interests. In other words, there is no room for sentimentality and unrequited benevolence. This applies to neighbours as well as others.

In India, we are uniquely wedded to the discourse that we must be generous with our neighbours, overlooking the widely practised principle of reciprocity in inter-state relations. Reciprocal generosity would be an acceptable approach, but not a unilateral show of generosity as many advocate. That we can afford neighbourly generosity because we are comparatively bigger is not a valid argument. A corollary argument that generosity will draw the neighbours towards us and create dependence that would eventually make them more amenable to our concerns and interests has not proved itself always on the ground.

Actually, we have been more than ordinarily generous to our neighbours since Independence despite a perception that we have not been so. We did not evict Pakistan from the whole of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, appealing to the United Nations instead to get the issue resolved peacefully. This meant leaving Pakistan with two-fifths of the state and a common border with China, while losing our own contiguity with Afghanistan — a monumental geo-political mistake in retrospect. Under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, we yielded 80 per cent of the waters of the Indus river basin to Pakistan, an act of generosity unparalleled anywhere else in the world between upper and lower riparians. We have meticulously adhered to this treaty despite armed aggressions and State-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan against us. In 1972, at Simla, we did not impose humiliating conditions on Pakistan in the hope of begetting future political returns for that large-heartedness. We have persevered in a dialogue with Pakistan despite its unspeakable involvement in the Mumbai terrorist attack. The invitation to Nawaz Sharif for the swearing-in of Modi, overlooking his negativism on Kashmir, unwillingness to restrain jihadi leaders like Hafiz Saeed, reneging on the granting of most-favoured-nation status, raising the water issue and the expulsion of Indian journalists, was another act of generosity. The latest terrorist attack on our consulate in Herat, intended to create a crisis ahead of the swearing-in by Pakistan-based terrorist networks, has also been ignored in a fresh bid to engage with our neighbour.

We have been generous with Bangladesh on water-sharing issues, accepting a novel principle of sharing dry season flows in the Ganges Water Treaty that figures in no other treaty elsewhere. Despite being a water-stressed country ourselves, we are accepting the rights of lower riparians more generously than upper riparians are conceding anywhere else, and that includes the Teesta accord. We had for long tolerated Bangladesh’s earlier sheltering of anti-Indian insurgents on its soil as well as its recalcitrance on transit issues, politically calculated to defeat our efforts to integrate better India’s Northeast with the rest of the country. We have avoided making the resolution of the issue of millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India a central one in our overall relationship with that country.

Nepal has sat on its immense hydroelectric potential despite India’s energy needs and we have not made an issue of it. We have tolerated its brazen use of the Chinese card against us. We have dealt with anti-Indian Maoist forces there, earlier with restraint and later constructively. The open border benefits Nepal more than it does India. We are willing to revise the 1950 treaty as periodically demanded by Nepal, just as it has been done in Bhutan’s case, whose sovereignty and independent decision-making we respect, resulting in high levels of mutual trust. We have been generous in assisting Bhutan’s development, including its water resources, with positive financial and energy returns, respectively, for both countries.

In 1976, we ceded the Kachchativu island to Sri Lanka. The price we have paid for supporting Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial sovereignty under the shadow of the highly vexed Tamilian issue has been enormous. Sri Lanka, too, has played the Chinese card against us astutely. We have not forcefully countered foreign intervention in our neighbourhood with the levers under our command. Even in the case of the Maldives, we have absorbed the attack on Indian business interests and have not actively countered the growth of Islamist influence there.

We have been politically generous with China, supporting in the past its membership of the security council in place of Taiwan, recognizing Tibet as part of China, searching a modus vivendi with it despite its several provocations over the years, built large-scale trade ties with it, worked with it on various international issues by setting aside bilateral differences and, generally, showing much more sensitivity to its interests than the reverse.

Some of the generosity may have been on account of timidity, ineptness and failures of diplomacy, but the fact remains that we have not thrown our huge weight around in our neighbourhood. This approach has not paid us notable dividends.

In sum, managing external relations is complex. We need to have a fresh look at the premises on which we have based our foreign policy so far, especially in the neighbourhood.