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Beyond India s Monroe Doctrine

January 02, 2003

The Hindu

Beyond India's Monroe Doctrine
By C. Raja Mohan

India's primacy in the region cannot be ensured by fiat or trying to keep the world out. It must be based on a conscious strategy of leadership that adapts to the changed political environment.

AS THE world relentlessly intrudes into the security politics of the Subcontinent, and external powers are drawn into the conflicts in India's neighbourhood, there is a deep sense of anxiety within South Block. How can India sit back and allow distant powers to meddle in the quarrels of the Subcontinent? Should New Delhi not take matters into its own hands and reassert its primacy in the region? These questions have come to the fore amidst the strong military presence of a U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, Norway's mediation efforts in Sri Lanka, growing Anglo-American involvement in Nepal, the recent announcement of a defence cooperation agreement between Bangladesh and China, international diplomacy to restore democratic rule in Myanmar, and above all, the emergence of the United States as the principal interlocutor between India and Pakistan. Underlying these questions is the concern that India's historic and natural dominance over the region is rapidly eroding.

That the Subcontinent is India's exclusive sphere of influence and New Delhi must strive to prevent the intervention of great powers in the affairs of the region are ideas that have long animated the nation's foreign policy. The notion of a Monroe Doctrine, similar to the one proclaimed for the Western Hemisphere by the U.S. in the 19th century, was expounded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru. India's first Prime Minister stressed the importance of keeping foreign powers out of Asia in the context of the attempts by the colonial powers to regain territories after the Second World War. Referring to the fact that America had secured itself from foreign aggression under the Monroe Doctrine, Nehru insisted that foreign armies have no business to stay on the soil of any Asian country.

But the extended Cold War in Asia ensured that foreign armies stayed on. Even after the Cold War ended, there are no signs that they are about to leave. Nevertheless, the notion of the Monroe Doctrine took root in Indian foreign policy in relation to the Subcontinent. While India could not prevent Pakistan from bringing great power rivalries to the Subcontinent, it actively sought to insulate the rest of the region from intervention by external powers. The special relationships India had inherited from the British with regard to the security of some of the smaller neighbours reinforced the sense of South Asia as India's sphere of influence.

During the Indira Gandhi years, the India's Monroe Doctrine was buttressed by the principle of bilateralism. Under the so-called called Indira Doctrine, India insisted that the problems in the region must be resolved bilaterally and that external powers should have no role in the region. Since then, the principle has been a matter of faith for Indian foreign policy makers. Recall the 1987 agreement Rajiv Gandhi signed with Sri Lanka which insisted that Colombo not offer bases to any other country. But that happy world in which South Asia was an exclusive geopolitical space for India is dead. It cannot be reconstructed in its old form.

A number of factors are at work in the new situation India faces. The first and foremost is the reality that the Subcontinent today is more integrated with the world. In the past the U.S. and the Soviet Union were not too concerned about the smaller nations of the subcontinent and were quite content to leave it for management by India. But China has always questioned India's claims for an exclusive sphere of influence in South Asia. As India's ties to the smaller neighbours became complicated, China has steadily expanded its influence in South Asia. Not that Beijing had to do much. India's smaller neighbours were behaving in copybook style — mobilising other powers to expand their leverage vis-a-vis India. All that China had to do was pat them on the back, say the right things, throw in a few arms and a bit of economic aid.

The long-standing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Maoist insurgency in Nepal, the antics of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the contest between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military regime in Myanmar, the question of the Nepalese refugees in Bhutan can no longer be swept under the regional carpet. The globalisation of South Asian security politics is complete.

Meanwhile, as identity politics began to dominate the internal politics of India's neighbours, the symbols of the special relationship with India became easy targets for political vilification. Huge anti-India constituencies have formed in all of India's neighbouring countries, and the leaders of these nations have not found it easy to resist the temptation of playing to the galleries by "standing up" against India. Enlightened self-interest has often become the casualty in the charged anti-India politics of our neighbourhood. Pakistan has become adept at manipulating these constituencies.

It is in this context that India must reconsider its regional strategy. The pursuit of primacy by India in the Subcontinent is not just something New Delhi would want to do but is expected of it by the rest of the world. However, India's primacy in the region cannot be ensured by fiat or trying to keep the world out. It must be based on a conscious strategy of leadership that adapts to the changed political environment, modernises the bilateral relations with neighbours and takes advantage of new international trends. Any such Indian strategy would have five components. First, India must move quickly to rework the special treaty relationships with Nepal and Bhutan. The old agreements based on the notion of "protectorates" cannot be sustained in the present day world. The inevitable review and revision of these treaties will be painful and messy, but India has no alternative.

Second, India must shed its obsession with Pakistan and devote more political and diplomatic energies towards tending its relationships with its other neighbours. In the absence of a consistent political tending of the neighbourhood, India will find itself repeatedly confronting poisonous weeds.

Third, New Delhi needs a massive revamping of its economic strategy towards the neighbours. India needs to take full advantage of natural geographic conditions and the pressures of economic globalisation to quicken the pace of the inevitable reintegration of the South Asian market. India cannot allow political pinpricks from its neighbours to come in the way of pursuing freer regional trade through unilateral action where necessary.

Fourth, despite the bitterness from some of India's past involvement in the civil wars in its neighbourhood, New Delhi must take active interest in resolving the regional conflicts. Avoiding them, for the fear of domestic political consequences or other considerations, will not provide an escape for India from the spillover of these conflicts.

Finally, India's activism in the conflicts next door need not necessarily mean excluding others from the region. India's objective should be to work with friendly great powers to promote principled and reasonable solutions to the conflicts in the region. Working with outsiders on regional conflicts will not be easy. India must find ways to shape and manage the international interest in its neighbourhood, rather than oppose it. The mobilisation of external interest could, however, provide expanded space for New Delhi to douse the anti-India sentiment in the region and nudge it in the right direction.

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