Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled for his life after being driven out by the people of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, Nepal’s former prime minister on a three-day visit at the invitation of the BJP, said ‘issues left by history’ must be addressed in order to realise the full potential of the bilateral ties. This perspective is often mirrored across India’s bilateral ties with all its subcontinental neighbours – Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. Each of these relationships carries the weight of history that continues to both bind and rupture the spirit of friendliness.
The Narendra Modi government has relied on its Neighbourhood First policy to strengthen relations. But that policy requires some course correction in the manner it is being strategised.
What happened to Neighbourhood First?
The Sri Lankan crisis is a litmus test for India’s Neighbourhood First policy. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar recently described this policy in his address to India’s diplomatic community on 7 July. Two points are noteworthy. It is a clear case of a generous and non-reciprocal approach and India, so far, walked the extra mile for its neighbours and will continue to do so. Walking the extra mile by being part of a larger international effort is now India’s test.
An Inter-Ministerial Coordination Group (IMCG) was convened by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in April 2022. The IMCG will act as a high-level mechanism to mainstream India’s Neighbourhood First Policy in line with the vision of PM Modi. This was indicated when the leaders of neighbouring nations were present at the Rashtrapati Bhavan for Modi’s 2014 swearing-in. Since then, much water has flowed under that visionary bridge, frustrating India’s efforts at realisation.
From an Indian standpoint, the negative impact of the lengthening shadows of global geopolitical rivalry on subcontinental unity has to be minimised. The logic is based on the other subcontinental nations being in its most intimate geopolitical space. India’s growth has been described as an endeavour hinged upon its success in managing its immediate neighbourhood. It is also said that South Asia can act as a constraint on New Delhi’s engagement with the larger Asian Theatre. It need not turn out that way, for India can also become the platform for economic integration. This will require it to take the lead being the largest economy.
In reality, the subcontinent is fractured and divided politically, economically and strategically. This fractious reality is reflected in the empirical evidence that only a meagre 7 per cent of India’s trade and just about 3 per cent of investment come from within the region. After initially promoting SAARC as the instrument of India’s engagement with its neighbours, the effort was given up and replaced by subregional cooperation under BBIN (Bay of Bengal Initiative) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The shift was prompted by a desire to isolate Pakistan.
India’s efforts at isolating Pakistan are in many ways rooted in the trajectory of the country’s domestic politics and on account of the continued use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool against it. On the other hand, domestic politics has strayed into the zone of communal polarisation. It is an unwise stand that eggs Pakistan to further its broader policy of dealing with India through the infliction of a ‘thousand cuts’. It is also a policy that has found support in China to keep India confined to the subcontinent.
A strategic decision for India
In the information domain, China’s role in the Sri Lankan crisis has in a large measure been perceived as that of a predator. This is despite the fact that China accounts for only 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt. The predator image may have different effects on its relations with India’s neighbours such as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives. In Sri Lanka, China has loomed large and many of its infrastructure projects have been seen as laying the ground for strategic purposes meant to supplement Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.
After the exit of the Rajapaksa clan, China will try to bury the fact of its proximity to the family. China has not extended much help to Sri Lanka except for emergency grants worth $76 million and is apparently playing a waiting game. India, on the other hand, has provided relief with $3.5 billion in aid that included food, energy and medical supplies. The larger question is how China will redeem its political influence in Sri Lanka and continue to pursue its ongoing infrastructure projects. The progress will depend on the political dispensation that emerges in Sri Lanka, a process that is not going to be easy. But it is one that is necessary for Sri Lanka to access aid financed by the IMF, which is controlled by the US.
The IMF can be expected to tailor its terms of aid to further the agenda of the Americans. That agenda is to keep China away from Sri Lanka and that coincides with India’s interests. The popular notion is that Sri Lankans favour a larger role for the US, Japan and EU in their country. India’s political and diplomatic energy must, therefore, be directed to garner economic aid for Sri Lanka. This must be based on its conviction that Sri Lanka can be expected to shift the course in its relations with China and move away from being used as its proxy for the larger global geopolitical competition for dominance.
India must also recognise that its Neighbourhood First approach cannot be effective without Pakistan. This policy is urgently in need of navigational guidance that political prudence must provide. It might seem difficult from a tactical perspective but it should not blind us to the vision that should guide our strategic approach. Such an approach will call for revisiting our policy toward Pakistan. To most, this might seem a bridge too far. But that does not mean that the path be abandoned.
We should treat Sri Lanka’s unfortunate plight as an opportunity to realise the vision of our broader role in the subcontinent indicated by PM Modi after assuming office. Even if it involves moderating the direction of our domestic politics, it would be well worth the effort.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.