SPEAKING AT THE UNIVERSITY of Dhaka during his recent visit to Bangladesh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh observed, “India will not be able to realise its own destiny without the partnership of its South Asian neighbours.” In his characteristically understated style, Singh was acknowledging the central paradox of Indian foreign policy. On the one hand, India’s emergence as a major power appears to evoke little concern amongst the existing great powers; India’s rise toward great power status—unlike that of China—is generally seen as a benign and welcome transformation. On the other hand, within South Asia—where India has long been the dominant player—India is regarded by its neighbours with resentment and wariness, if not hostility and fear. Resolving this paradox is a key challenge for India’s foreign policy.
Over the past five years or so, New Delhi has recognised the urgency of recasting its relations with its subcontinental neighbours. Identifying the problems in this troubled neighbourhood is easy; tackling them has been far more difficult. The seeming intractability of the problems stems from the historical and structural factors that shape India’s relations with its neighbours. For starters, there is the long shadow cast by the Partition of India. In a very real sense, the subcontinent is still coming to terms with this momentous event. It not only engendered many of the most neuralgic regional disputes, it also led the newly formed nation-states to define their identities and raisons d’etre in sharp contrast to one another. These antagonistic identities and the narratives flowing from them have greatly complicated political resolutions to problems.
Closely related to this are the demographic and geographic specificities of South Asia. India is, by some proportion, the largest, most populous and most powerful country in the region. All of India’s neighbours share a boundary with it, but not with one another; considerable ethnic and linguistic overlaps exist across these boundaries. Unsurprisingly, many of these countries resent the overweening presence of India and its overbearing attitude towards them. As a result, India has tended to become a factor in the domestic politics of countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal: politicians have sometimes bolstered their support at home by drawing on antagonism towards India; at the same time, India has felt it necessary to pick its own friends within these countries, further complicating relations with its neighbours over time.