By Shashi Tharoor
In my forthcoming book ‘Pax Indica’, a study of India’s place in the world of the 21st century, I argue that the principal thrust of India’s foreign policy ought to be to promote the domestic transformation, development and growth of India. Our own neighbourhood remains vital in this regard.
Whereas more distant areas of the globe — the investment-generating countries of the Americas and Europe, and the energy-supplying countries in the Gulf, Africa and Central Asia — offer obvious opportunities for India, problems in the immediate neighbourhood generate both threats and opportunities — and the threats risk undermining India’s efforts fundamentally. Weak and failing states are able to subvert the larger ambitions of the more dominant countries neighbouring them. The analyst Nitin Pai has gone so far as to argue that “India’s neighbours know that their own weakness is a source of implicit and explicit bargaining power”. Be that as it may, a rising India has an obvious interest in the success of its neighbours, since a stable neighbourhood contributes to an enabling environment for India’s own domestic objectives, while disturbances on India’s borders can act as a constraint on India’s continued rise.
India’s geopolitical strategists, both inside and outside government, have tended to see India’s interests globally (witness the attention paid to relations with the United States, or India’s role at the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement). In our immediate neighbourhood, they have focused mainly on the threats to the nation’s rise from the Pakistani military and its terrorist proxies, and to a somewhat lesser degree from the emergence of China and its impact on India’s stature in the region. The result has been that the rest of the neighbourhood has sometimes been treated with neglect rather than close attention, and occasionally with a condescension that some have seen as arrogance.
Whereas China is generally viewed as having managed its relationship with its neighbours well — though this image is fraying now with reports of Beijing’s increasing belligerence in the South China Sea — India is widely considered not to have done enough to transform its neighbourhood from a liability into an asset.
Seventeen Indian states share land or maritime borders with foreign countries. The need to work for a peaceful periphery, devoid of the threat of extremism, is self-evident; less obvious but even more necessary is the need to embrace the neighbouring countries in a narrative of shared opportunity and mutually beneficial development.
For the Indian foreign policymaker, there is no getting away from the fundamental verities underpinning our relationships on the subcontinent. The question that all of us who belong to this ancient land need to ask ourselves is whether we desire peaceful coexistence and cooperation or are reconciled to being irretrievably mired in conflict and confrontation. A subcontinent at peace benefits all who live in it; one troubled by hostility, destructive rivalry, conflict and terror pulls us all down.
Our region has been blessed with an abundance of natural and human resources, a rich spiritual and civilisational heritage, a demography where youth is preponderant and a creative zeal manifest in all spheres of human endeavour. Our collective identity may be rooted in a turbulent history but the challenge is to translate the many factors that bind us into a self-sustaining, mutually beneficial and cooperative partnership that transcends the vicissitudes of the recent past. Indian officials like to argue that the people of South Asia have already made their choice and that the spirit — if not yet the reality — of an organisation like SAARC embodies the aspirations of people from Herat to Yangon. It is imperative that all nations of SAARC work collectively to realise their vision. Yet, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted at the April 2010 SAARC summit: “We have created institutions for regional cooperation but we have not yet empowered them adequately to enable them to be more pro-active.”
The Government of India, from the prime minister down, has a strategic vision of a peaceful subcontinent. The Indian foreign policy establishment genuinely believes that the peace, prosperity and security of our neighbours is in our interest. Many efforts have been made by India in recent years to ensure a marked improvement in its relations with most of its immediate neighbours, particularly following (and building upon) the articulation of the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ in 1996, which declared the accelerated development of every country in the subcontinent to be a key goal for India. Unlike some, India has never believed in undermining or destabilising other countries; we believe that each of us deserves an equal chance to attend to the needs of our people without being distracted by hostility from any of our neighbours. When I was briefly a minister in the Government of India, I proudly declared that “where we have disagreements, we will never abandon the path of dialogue and reconciliation. We are as resolute in our commitment to peace as we are firm in defending our country”. These are sentiments anchored in a long tradition, one that official India still gladly stands by.
India has repeatedly made it clear that it desires friendly, good neighbourly and cooperative relations with all its neighbours. As by far the biggest country in the subcontinent (in size, population and GDP terms), we are often (in New Delhi’s view, wrongly) perceived as throwing our weight around and (in my view, rightly) expected to show magnanimity in our dealings with our smaller neighbours. This we have done often in the past and must continue to do more often in the future.
However, while it is not New Delhi’s expectation that our neighbours display an equal measure of reciprocity, we certainly expect that they remain sensitive to our concerns regarding our sovereignty, our territorial integrity and our security. We do not think this is an unreasonable expectation. Within this framework a great deal can be achieved to our mutual benefit. People-to-people contacts, intra- and inter-regional connectivity, cultural exchanges, trade, investment flows and integrated approaches to vital issues like water, food, health, education and climate change will have to define any future architecture for the region.
It is also true that a cooperative future is not guaranteed unless we all work together on this unique project of a South Asia looking confidently to the future, each country secure in its own identity and putting development and the interests of its people above perceived fears and antagonistic posturing. Together, we can all succeed.
(Shashi Tharoor is an MP and formerly India's Minister of State for External Affairs. He can be contacted at email@example.com)