Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

For India, strengthening ties with rest of South Asia is more important than ever

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wave to the media in Dhaka on 6 September. Singh’s visit to Bangladesh marked an effort to soften often prickly ties between the two South Asian neighbours. PAVEL RAHMAN / AP PHOTO
Elections 2024
01 October, 2011

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.

Equally problematic is the absence of a normative consensus among countries in the region. Despite considerable cultural overlap, and despite commencing their political lives from similar starting points, their political trajectories have been rather different. A genuinely shared commitment to democracy and human rights and against violence and militarism has proved elusive.

Economic integration has proved almost as nettlesome as political normalisation. South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world. Trade within the region is a measly five percent of total official trade—a stark contrast to other parts of Asia: intraregional trade in East Asia, for instance, is more than 50 percent of the total. Trade figures appear even more dismal when we recall that, prior to 1947, this region had more or less open borders. What’s more, parts of the region were closely linked to other parts of Asia. The ‘great crescent’—the vibrant network of trade, finance and entrepreneurs—that stretched from Calcutta to Singapore was the commercial heartland of Asia.

South Asia has tremendous potential for growth through trade. The region has the largest population density in the world, and a great number of its major cities sit close to international borders. There are at least three reasons that might explain why this potential has not been adequately tapped. One of the legacies of colonialism in South Asia has been an ambivalence about free trade—a problem compounded by the economic consequences of the Partition. The identity crisis and structural asymmetry mentioned above militated against the idea of free trade with India. In the late 1940s, even as Indian and Pakistani armies confronted each other in Kashmir, the two countries were engaged in a currency, trade and tariff war. India, for its part, has treated its borders as fences to keep others out rather than use them as gateways for the movement of goods, people and ideas. The underdevelopment of India’s own border areas, which tend to be seen as buffer zones, undermines India’s ability to foster regional trade.

The role played by external powers has also worked against the amelioration of regional animosities. Given the structural asymmetry between India and its neighbours, it is not surprising that the latter have sought to avail of countervailing influences against India. At various periods in the past 60 years, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal have each relied, in varying degrees, on support from external powers, especially the United States and China. But the manner in which these powers disbursed economic and military aid served to reinforce the antagonism with India and to buttress authoritarian regimes; for decades, India expended disproportionate amounts of diplomatic and political capital in seeking to stem the flow of such assistance.

There are, however, some encouraging signs of change. First, India’s economic growth in the past two decades has positioned it to credibly play the role of a regional dynamo. India’s neighbours are gradually realising the unprecedented opportunity that India presents for their growth prospects. India’s free trade agreements with Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and the trade and transit agreement with Nepal, have showcased the potential benefits of regional economic integration. It is no coincidence that Bangladesh wants to greatly enhance trade and connectivity with India, or that Pakistan has, at last, agreed to confer Most Favoured Nation status on India. Second, economic growth has also imparted a measure of political assurance to India. Once the largest recipient of foreign aid in the region, India has now begun giving aid to its neighbours. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are the most recent beneficiaries of this turn in Indian foreign policy. More importantly, India feels sufficiently confident in approaching problems that were earlier seen as no-go areas. The ambitious Manmohan-Musharraf backchannel on Kashmir; the agreement on arbitration on the Baglihar dam in Kashmir; the recent agreement on boundary, exclaves and adverse possessions with Bangladesh: all of these reflect India’s growing confidence and its increasingly relaxed style in dealing with its neighbours. Finally, China’s growing clout in South Asia has spurred India’s efforts to improve its ties with these countries. Unlike in the past, India’s response is no longer defensive. Instead of shouting itself hoarse about China’s activities along its periphery, India realises the need to build its own capabilities and influence.

The prime minister’s visit to Bangladesh suggests that even if a pan-regional push towards integration remains difficult, working on subregional connectivity and trade—say, between India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal—could be eminently feasible. But the trip to Dhaka also underscores the importance of focusing on two crucial points: New Delhi needs to work more closely with the border states of India and persuade them to shed their parochialism and take a wider view of the national interest. Further, New Delhi needs to ensure prompt and complete follow-through on understandings reached with its neighbours. Let’s hope that the prime minister’s latest outing will not be yet another occasion of India’s relations with a neighbour reaching a turning point, but failing to turn.