When foreign policy is a game of hop, skip, jump

M.J. Akbar
Every neighbourhood has its share of hoods. They come with the territory. When geopolitics is involved, one nation’s hoods are another’s soulmates. That’s where is gets complicated.
Hostility is actually quite straightforward. Provocation has well-set parameters, and response is generally predictable. India and Pakistan are a classic example. Their foreign offices and militaries have developed a calibrated formula: so much ammunition for this much excess. The sabre rattles, and sometimes nicks, but never escalates beyond an almost predetermined point, no matter who is guilty. Life, punctuated by death, goes on.
Delhi, the aggrieved party most times, has factored in swings of an imbalanced pendulum. The sway is not even because the momentum generated by peaceniks falls far short of the conflict engineered by those determined to change the map of India. Sensible governments on both sides realise that while they can be confident, no situation will end with the dramatic checkmate of victory of defeat, it remains their responsibility to ensure that the stalemate never decays into toxic war.
It is the relationship with friends that requires both more imagination and harder work. India’s diplomats work hard enough, as is only to be expected from the big boys of the subcontinent. But over the past five years they seem to work to little purpose. Purpose is a consequence of policy, and foreign policy has been converted into a game of hop, skip and jump by the Indian government. The results are visible. India generates perplexity or scepticism among those who could be, or should be, friends.
Two examples stand out: Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. I mention them because five years ago our relations with both neighbours were just a few steps away from unprecedented cordiality after having sunk to an historic low.
The nadir in India-Lanka relations came with the ill-prepared military intervention ordered by Rajiv Gandhi, a paradoxical culmination of interference that began with an opposite objective when Mrs Indira Gandhi armed and trained the Tamil secessionist movement led by Prabhakaran. Squeezed into a horrendous trap, India became hated by both the Sinhalas and the Tamils. In January 2009, we stepped out of this poison-pill dilemma when India, guided by a foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who could be both firm and clear, gave total if unadvertised support to Colombo in its final offensive against Tamil separatists. Delhi was quiet, despite pressure from its most important ally, DMK, as Colombo defeated the LTTE and killed Prabhakaran.
This was an excellent investment, which should have created a huge opportunity base for the expansion of mutually beneficial relations. Instead, nearly five years later, there is concern that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may not attend the meeting of Commonwealth heads of government slated for November. Reason? The UPA is, apparently, worried about the political fallout in Tamil Nadu, where passions have been raised by accusations of human rights violations by the Lanka army during its war against the LTTE. This does not make sufficient sense for two reasons. First, India was complicit in whatever happened in the last phase of the war, for it knew what was happening but deliberately chose to do nothing. Second, if policy is going to be held hostage to domestic electoral mathematics, there can never be either consistency or gain to the national interest.
Bangladesh offered equally dramatic scope, with the comprehensive re-election of Sheikh Hasina. India could ask for no better friend in Dhaka than the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, architect and undisputed hero of Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971. And yet, through contortions that are a textbook lesson in how to snatch disaster from opportunity, Delhi managed to betray Sheikh Hasina on an issue as sensitive as water. The touchstone is not what Sheikh Hasina demanded, but what Dr Singh promised. Delhi could not honour its word because its management skills were woefully inadequate in both Dhaka and Kolkata. There is good reason, therefore, why Colombo is perplexed and Dhaka is sceptical, if not angry.
A scattershot approach extends its aim to wherever the blunderbuss can swivel. If India had one all-weather alliance in the world, it was with Bhutan. A permanent spring has slid into monsoon, with thunderstorms threatening all the time, even if they do not quite break into a downpour. It requires exceptional dexterity to damage relations with Bhutan, but we have managed to achieve this in the past few years.
If Dr Manmohan Singh’s government has time for any neighbour, then it is only for inimical Pakistan and cynical China. The signal to others is simple: Delhi responds to trouble, not to a handshake, which explains a great deal about the sullen attitudes towards India across South Asia now. A bemused China takes what it can from Delhi, and snubs India when it wants. And an amused Pakistan laughs all the way to the goodwill bank of SAARC.