The Indian visit of the Sri Lankan president, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga, will give New Delhi another opportunity to reassess its ties with its smaller neighbours in south Asia. Mr Yashwant Sinha had made the task of improving relations with India’s eastern and southern neighbours his top priority soon after taking over as the country’s external affairs minister. And yet, on present evidence, India’s policy seems to lack both coherence and direction, and there seems to be no clear strategy at work. Although it may be difficult to arrive at a modus vivendi with Pakistan, there is a growing consensus within the country’s strategic community that it is vital to arrive at an accommodation with the smaller states of south Asia. But barring Bhutan, and to an extent the Maldives, India’s influence in all other states is declining.
Consider the case of Sri Lanka. India’s involvement in the ongoing peace process in the island-state is marginal. While New Delhi has been kept informed of the developments by the Norwegian mediators and the Sri Lankan government, there is little doubt that India is now a secondary player. Indeed, the success of the peace process would pose a huge challenge to Indian policy. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is a designated terrorist organization, and India has been seeking the extradition of the LTTE chief, Mr V. Prabhakaran. Any settlement, therefore, between Colombo and the LTTE would demand that India drastically revise its policy towards the Tigers. However, if this revision is likely to take place in the future, New Delhi might as well change course now so that it can actively play a part in the shaping of Sri Lanka’s future. Hopefully, the visit of the Sri Lankan president will provoke introspection within South Block. The example of India’s relations with Nepal and Bangladesh is no better. Rarely, in recent history, has New Delhi had as little influence in Kathmandu and Dhaka as it has today. India has little leverage with the monarchy in Nepal, which is the most powerful player in the country, and the ruling Bangladesh National Party is unlikely to accommodate Indian interests in the country.
It is easy to attribute the current state of affairs to the anti-Indianism prevalent in south Asia or the role played by Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence. There may be an element of truth in this, but there is a harsher reality. It is unfortunate that in south Asian capitals there is a strong impression that New Delhi vacillates between being a big bully and a supercilious patron, and neither is conducive to building a strong relationship. What India must understand is that the only way of establishing its control over the region is by integrating it economically into a close partnership. This may require making some unilateral economic and political concessions, linked to a movement towards an economic union. But once such a union is in place, not only will south Asia witness greater peace and stability, but India will also naturally emerge as the leader of the region.