From Afghanistan to Pakistan to Bangladesh, the most interesting thing about India’s foreign policy establishment this week is that it has put on hold its reservations, apprehensions and misplaced loyalties and decided to talk to all the players in the region, in an effort to match China’s expanding influence.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet visiting Afghan foreign minister Haneef Atmar — who has just returned from Moscow after participating in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government — before he flies off to Bangladesh later this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence.
Modi hopes that with this visit and the talks with neighbours, he will send Beijing the appropriate message – that India and South Asia belong to each other and there’s no room for three.
Meanwhile, the Indus waters team from Pakistan has arrived in New Delhi to talk to its counterpart, days after a Pakistani equestrian team participated in the International Tent-Pegging Federation World Cup qualifying match on the outskirts of Delhi for which they borrowed horses from their Indian hosts.
Certainly, if wishes were horses, as the English proverb goes, beggars would ride; then there is the cautionary Chinese saying, “Be careful what you wish for, it may just come true.”
India knows it must reach out
This week, then, PM Modi is straddling the subcontinent, wishing he can regain India’s traditional influence that has been lost in recent years, because of either New Delhi’s refusal to talk (to Pakistan, unless cross-border terrorism comes to an end), or talk too much (about Bangladesh, calling its people “termites”).
China, of course, is an acknowledged rival. It is well known as Pakistan’s chief patron. It was very much part of last week’s Moscow talks on how to make peace in Afghanistan – along with the US, Russia and Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s video message was the first to be played at the inauguration of the anniversary celebrations at Dhaka’s parade ground last week.
Atmar’s presence in Delhi is certainly confirmation that the newest chapter of the Great Game is underway – a phrase used when Governor-General William Bentinck was tasked in 1830 by London to find a trade route to Bukhara, so that intervening nations like Afghanistan would become buffer zones between the British and Russian empires. It would be another 70 years before the phrase caught common fancy, when it was used by that Raj-era enthusiast Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim.
India now on Afghan table
Back in Kabul these days, the intensity of the diplomatic cut-and-thrust between the big powers has certainly intensified. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently wrote a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, suggesting talks between Afghan elders – that is former president Hamid Karzai, Ghani himself and key leaders like Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammed Atta Noor and Abu Sayyaf – and the Taliban.
The talks will be held in Turkey in April – an interesting choice of venue, because it is seen to be close to Pakistan. And while the increasingly unpopular Ghani has rejected Blinken’s attempt at brokering another peace initiative (“I am not like those willows that bend with the wind” he said about forming an interim government), he may find that he has no alternative but to go to Istanbul.
What, you would ask, has this got to do with Atmar’s visit to Delhi? The answer is that the Afghan foreign minister is seen to be close to Moscow. That perceived proximity stems from the 1980s when, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the young Atmar worked for the Afghan intelligence agency KHAD – which, of course, was fully funded and supported by the Soviets.
Atmar fought against the mujahideen at the time and in 1987, lost a leg in a battle in Jalalabad – but he survived. When the Americans threw out the Taliban after 9/11, Atmar first worked for Karzai, then for Ghani. As a survivor in the Afghan Great Game, his briefing to PM Modi about the big powers jostling for influence in inner Asia will be significant.
Meanwhile, weeks ago, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to Afghanistan, called external affairs minister S. Jaishankar to tell him that India, along with Afghanistan’s neighbours like Pakistan and Iran, would be part of the new peace conversation in Turkey.
That’s why Atmar is here – because India, despite Pakistani opposition, has made it to the Afghan table. For Jaishankar, the several briefings are great preparation before he embarks for Turkey.
Election and foreign policy in one
Once Atmar returns home, Modi will embark for Bangladesh to participate in the 50th anniversary of its independence, concluding a 10-day-long celebration joined by four other leaders from South Asia – Maldives President Ibu Solih, Nepal President Bidya Bhandari, Sri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and Bhutan PM Lotay Tshering.
Modi will fly to Satkhira district in Bangladesh’s southern Khulna province to pay obeisance at the Jeshoreshwari Kali temple – one of the 51 ‘shakti peeth’ sites considered sacred in Hinduism — located cheek by jowl with the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, which is going to the polls over the next several weeks.
Modi will also go to Gopalganj to pay his respects at the grave of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman— and interact with the large Matua community, the scheduled caste group said to have influence in 40-45 constituencies in the West Bengal assembly election.
Clearly, the Bharatiya Janata Party hopes the PM’s Bangladesh visit will pay off. Note that BJP leaders have now consciously stayed away from making disparaging remarks about Bangladeshis, like home minister Amit Shah once did by calling them “termites” – it might have been easy in the heat and dust of a very important election campaign.
Certainly, the PM is trying to restore India’s image across South Asia. He wants to be more involved in Kabul and he wants to have a better relationship with Dhaka. With China looming large across the region, Modi knows India must step up to the game.
Views are personal. You can follow her on Twitter @jomalhotra.