Anti India sentiments may be fashionable among select politicians in the region but in general people do not seem to appreciate a strident anti India stand.
Among the most important foreign policy initiatives of the Narendra Modi government since 2014 was its “neighbourhood first” policy which sought to lay emphasis on India’s immediate neighbours and other countries in the region. The idea was to regain the strategic space that New Delhi lost in the past two decades or so to China, which did not conceal its strategy of encircling India. As a result of China’s policy of aggressive engagement in our backyard, Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, India had no option but to rethink its foreign policy orientation.
After the initial beginning at the swearing in ceremony and subsequent visits to neighbouring countries, promises of projects and building bonhomie there appears to be a slackness in New Delhi’s approach towards such engagements. The Citizenship Amendment Act to provide citizenship to persecuted minorities in the three countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan raised a volley of protests in these countries. But astute diplomatic channels handled the situation and recovered the lost ground by convincing Kabul and Dhaka of New Delhi’s genuine intensions.
Meanwhile, political expediency and regrouping of countries either by design or as a natural progress of events and issues tilted the balance of power in the region. Anti India sentiments may be fashionable among select politicians in the region but in general people do not seem to appreciate a strident anti India stand. Geopolitical power play in the region is also gradually changing to India’s advantage in the face of realisation of the economic potential and political stability of India.
A case in point is the recent political developments in Malaysia where a corrupt government had to go in the face of commercial deals on palm oil going awry as New Delhi tightened the screws in the wake of the anti India stand taken by the longest serving Mahathir Muhammad. The ageing leader had challenged Saudi Arabia and sided with Islamabad to criticise not only CAA but also the abrogation of Article 370—the wholly domestic issues of India.
In our immediate neighbourhood, Pakistan’s anti-India shenanigans have landed Islamabad in a financial soup as Saudi Arabia has stopped supply of oil on credit to Pakistan and also asked to return $1 billion out of the $6.2 billion packages including an oil credit of $3.2 billion doled out in 2018. Saudi Arabia’s reaction is in retaliation to Pakistan’s insistence on convening a stand-alone meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) on J&K to condemn India. Saudi Arabia has thus nipped in the bud the possible emergence of a Turkey-Malaysia-Pakistan axis. Ironically, as per reports, China bailed out Islamabad and paid the $1 billion on behalf of Pakistan. Needless to say, Pakistan will pay a heavy price for all its follies.
Closer home, the landslide victory with a whopping 52% of votes and 145 seats out of a total of 225 seats in Parliament of Sri Lanka in the recently held election has brought the Rajapaksa clan back into the political mainstream after a few years of wilderness.
With two thirds majority in the House, the return of Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka should hopefully signal the beginning of a new era of development. Almost eleven years ago the Rajapaksa brothers had strategised and defeated the LTTE. This is probably the only instance in the world when a terrorist outfit has been totally vanquished and uprooted from the land of its origin. But political fortunes changed for the Rajapaksa clan and they lost power, accused of corruption charges and also suspected of making secret deals with the Chinese, putting India in peril.
What followed was a severe international diplomatic isolation and trade restrictions. Successive governments in New Delhi had shown sympathy with the Tamil cause but actively supported Colombo in its fight against LTTE terrorism, violence and separatism. For its part the LTTE systematically eliminated all of the sober, liberal and moderate Tamil leadership who could have arrived at a negotiated settlement with Colombo benefiting the Tamil community, but without hurting the Sinhala pride.
The ten-year stint of Mahinda Rajapaksa ended in 2015, resulting in a change of government, and amendment to the Constitution imposing a two-term limit to Presidents and banning citizens with dual citizenship from holding Constitutional posts, besides drastically cutting down the powers of the President. All these amendments were obviously aimed at the Rajapaksa clam which many political pundits began to write off. To add to their woes, the then President got into diplomatic crosshairs with India over granting special favours to Beijing, indicating a tilt towards China.
The Easter bombings of 2019 brought the issue of terrorism, flawed notion of secularism and neglect of Buddhist values at the altar of political expediency to the forefront of national narrative, giving the much needed foothold to the Rajapaksa clan to make a political comeback.
Over the years the political establishment in Colombo has realised the need to do business with élan with any country in the world but never to step on the toes of its immediate and large neighbour India. New Delhi has reiterated its stand saying Colombo has the right and prerogative to choose its trading partners without compromising with the strategic and security interests of India.
All the same, India needs to realise the sensitivities of Colombo and do much more than merely harping on cultural and historical relations spanning centuries. Even as India’s clout is increasing in the region and elsewhere in the world, the modern world values India’s soft power approach but our neighbours and countries in the region expect more trade and commercial engagement. India and Sri Lanka will have to explore all the avenues of greater commerce, while simultaneously strengthening the cultural bonding.
The negotiations on the inconclusive Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and Sri Lanka have been put on hold due to disagreements on a number of issues including apprehensions from the trading community in Colombo. As a bigger economy with enough cushion to accommodate a loss of revenue, New Delhi should address the concerns of the business community in Sri Lanka. India is the leading Foreign Direct Investor (FDI) in Sri Lanka and also the largest trading partner with trade nearing $5 billion. The India Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA) has catapulted bilateral trade in the last two decades to a comfortable level but with huge potential to even double the present figures.
The present Covid-19 pandemic has seriously impacted the island nation’s tourism potential and hospitality sector which clocked nearly two million tourists last year, earning a revenue of about $2.5 billion targeting to double both numbers and revenue. But the unfortunate Easter bombings in April last year was a serious setback to the sector, with a potential to employ more than half a million people.
As part of increasing its clout in the region, New Delhi will have to engage proactively with its neighbours, regional institutions and speed up the completion of connectivity and other projects. Soft power instruments like art and culture are good enough only if we are able to improve economic interaction, increase bilateral trade and take the lead in improving regional connectivity. The post Covid-19 pandemic situation calls for greater thrust in the “neighbourhood first” policy to increase India’s clout in the region.
It is high time for India to pursue its diplomacy rigorously in its neighbourhood and create a win-win situation.
Seshadri Chari is a well known political commentator and strategic Analyst. Arvind Kumar is a Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal.