India’s bullying of its neighbours boosted China
The current turbulence on the Indian subcontinent appears unprecedented in its enormity since the partition of India in 1947. While the ongoing China-India altercation occupies the attention of the strategic community, events transpiring across South Asia since the arrival of Covid-19 are reshaping the already fractious security environment of a subregion often touted as the world’s most dangerous.
China’s steadily growing and assertive involvement in the destinies of the eight countries that form the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) would arguably qualify it as the ninth member of the bloc, challenging India’s muddled efforts to achieve global power status.
India’s ambitions continue to be thwarted by its inexhaustible capacity to lay siege within. Energetically so since Narendra Modi became prime minister in the summer of 2014, with the spectacular eruption of Hindu extremism, crippling economic policies, the corrosion of democratic institutions, and its neighbourhood policy – driven by its desire to reaffirm its regional supremacy – leaving New Delhi increasingly perceived as a big bully.
Modi’s groundbreaking decision to invite Saarc leaders to his inauguration held the promise of resolving differences and renewing ties to help improve intraregional trade from its trifling 5 per cent.
That hope evaporated in the winter of 2015 with India’s “informal” blockade of Nepal, which caused a humanitarian crisis more damaging than the devastating earthquake the country was still recovering from. With Delhi’s negative reaction to the new constitution of Nepal, the region’s aspirations took a new hit, opening the door further for its challenger.
India’s effort to control the damage in its latest face-off with Nepal over a cartographic interpretation follows the pattern of appealing to civilizational linkages and a “special” relationship. And like before, these are met with the incredulous retort of “what kind of civilised country will bully its smaller neighbours to assert its size?” To be sure, a variation of this refrain continues to mount in the region since Modi’s inauguration and the launch of India’s neighbourhood first policy.
Incriminated for meddling in the domestic affairs and elections of Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and resorting to intimidatory conduct when the outcomes have not gone its way, Delhi shoulders the responsibility for shaping the domestic politics of these countries along the lines of those for and against both India and China.
Bangladesh, seen as India’s only steady friend in the region, is reeling from the thuggish jolts that Indian politicians systematically deliver through their treatment of Muslims and descriptions of Bangladeshi migrants as “termites”.
While Delhi’s attempts to paper over these incidents with new incoming regional administrations do reclaim these “special” relationships somewhat, historical and cultural links become weaker and the new generations growing up in the invigorating glow of nationalism in their own countries have less incentive to look up to India in the same manner their forebears did.
The India-Pakistan story, which held great promise when Pakistan attended Modi’s 2014 swearing-in, has failed to blaze new trails and has followed the same old trajectory.
With growing scrutiny over India’s discriminatory attacks against its own citizens, the facade is cracking to reveal the ugly realities of the world’s largest democracy. The mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, a weakening economy and now the loss of 20 soldiers on the border with China have raised the heat in Delhi.
Even if the fallout of the China-India border skirmishes does nudge Delhi to shed its reservations and draw closer to the United States, India still has to live and work in its neighbourhood for sustained growth and long term security. In the next few months, India will need to remake itself, with some reality checks on its limitations.
Having facilitated China’s expansionist goals by its coarse dealings with its smaller neighbours, and having perniciously divided its own people by pandering to its electoral constituents with a singular focus on transforming the country into a Hindu nation, post-pandemic India has to reset its priorities to rebuild its weakening economy. The current social ferment and relentless chipping away of its secular constitution are hardly conducive to India’s economic development.
A perceived loss of territory and the ensuing loss of face among neighbours seething at slights to their size and sovereignty ought to impel Indian efforts to build the strong and prosperous backyard it needs to realise its own potential to become an influential voice in global decision-making. If indeed civilizational linkages are to be the foundation that will bolster regional integration, there could be no more compelling time as now to demonstrate good neighbourliness.