India loses way in its neighborhood
At a meeting with the president of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at his residence in New Delhi last Friday, the functionaries of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which mentors the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reportedly expressed “grave concern” over the mishandling of the country’s relations with Nepal.
The RSS functionaries censured the government for the current India-Nepal standoff, blaming the leadership for causing “an unnecessary escalation of the situation because of a lack of communication between the two governments”. They expect Shah to be the messenger to carry out their instruction to the government.
In a separate development recently, a high-flying erstwhile RSS functionary seconded to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who acts as ‘shadow foreign minister’, was pulled up recently for serious irregularities in organizing the banga banga parties for Modi during his visits abroad, such as the spectacle at Madison Square Garden in New York last year in September.
These theatrical roadshows are important for Modi to project himself as a ‘rock star’ on the world stage and to inspire awe in the minds of the uninformed Indian public.
Suffice it to say, it is in such bits and pieces that the public gets a peep into the strange ways in which the Modi government conducts its foreign policies. The Modi government has a full-fledged foreign minister (and a junior foreign minister who used to be a four star general), but they do not seem to be consequential. The diplomatic missions in Delhi often take the ‘shadow foreign minister’ more seriously than the real foreign minister.
When the shadow becomes more important than the real thing, something has gone very seriously wrong in the conduct of India’s foreign policies – quite obviously, the falcon is no longer hearing the falconer. This is most evident in India’s neighborhood policies. India has never before projected itself as a ‘national security state’ in such a brazen fashion in its neighborhood. It is not only preposterous for a liberal democracy to do so, but India is punching far above its weight.
The RSS subscribes to the doctrine of Akhand Bharat, which implies a Hindu-dominated Indian sub-continent, which seeks the return of the small countries vivisected out of India such as Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal to the womb. As regards China, RSS regards it as an enemy country with which it must only deal from a position of strength.
Unsurprisingly, the bureaucrats in the foreign and security policy establishment have figured out the ‘wind factor’ (as the Chinese call it) and are bending low toward the RSS. They estimate that in the present political dispensation, it pays to be a ‘hawk’.
Thus, India’s relations with China and Pakistan have taken a turn for the worse through the past one-year period for no obvious reason one can discern. There is peace and tranquility prevailing in the disputed border regions with China; there are no Chinese ‘incursions’ being reported from those parts.
China is largely leaving India to itself and Beijing has its hands full in terms of its historic reform program and the recent disputes with the United States in the South China Sea. No Chinese submarine has lately appeared in Sri Lanka or Pakistan. China is not fueling the insurgencies tearing India’s northeast region apart.
In fact, for the first time, China has shown willingness to be a peacemaker in Afghanistan. All in all, there is an opportune moment for Delhi’s mandarins to rev up diplomacy towards China. Yet, the national security state is not only uninterested but also refuses to build on the legacy of trust in the relationship it inherited from the previous government.
India’s Asia-Pacific diplomacy – ‘Act East’ policies – can be summed up as follows: ‘Hey, out there, if you guys have any tiffs with China, come to Delhi and have a cup of tea with us’.
The Modi government’s policies towards Pakistan are almost ditto. In a calibrated move to irritate that country, India lately began asserting its territorial claims to the Northern Areas and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The RSS has conjured up irredentist visions of Akhand Bharat (implying that the Partition of 1947 leading to the creation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan can be undone.)
The ministers in Modi’s government openly bragged that Indian forces will not hesitate to cross the border with Pakistan if a need arises. The army chief speculated about a ‘swift, short war’.
Yet, the restive Muslim-dominated Valley region in the state of Jammu & Kashmir has been so very tranquil and free from cross-border terrorism lately – although the alienation of the people remains deep and almost unbridgeable. It is possible to estimate that Pakistan may have, finally, rolled back its support of insurgency in J&K.
Pakistan has its plate full with problems of various kinds and has no desire to provoke India. Its military is preoccupied with fighting terrorism on the western border with Afghanistan. Pakistan seemed to signal willingness to discuss a moratorium on terrorism that addresses mutual concerns. However, the national security state is simply not interested in normalizing relations with Pakistan. Pakistan wants to discuss ‘all outstanding issues, including Kashmir’, but the national security state will only discuss terrorism. On this silly argument, India manages to scuttle talks with Pakistan.
As regards Nepal, the standoff between the two countries seems more and more like a tragi-comedy. The clumsiness with which India handled Nepal’s transition to constitutional rule has been appalling. India waded into the making of Nepal’s new constitution. It all started with the RSS determining that Nepal should be a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu nation).
Modi personally launched a charm offensive to realize the RSS project in Nepal. From the traditional welcome extended to Modi during his two visits to Nepal, New Delhi concluded wrongly that the RSS project in that country was a done thing. But then, Nepal chose to be a secular republic.
The RSS project to dominate Nepal is unrealistic, since it fundamentally overlooks that India’s small neighbors cherish their sovereignty, independence and national identity and will defend them no matter what it takes. But in the mindless pursuit of the RSS project in Nepal, Delhi committed a series of blunders, wounding Nepali sensitivities and national pride. Nepal suspects that India harbors territorial designs on it.
The ‘hawks’ in the Indian establishment have become so myopic that they overlook that India will have a tough time defending its own actions in its turbulent insurgency-ridden regions – unmarked graves, war crimes explained away as ‘encounters’ with militants, military occupation, denial of civil rights and so on –if ever the yardsticks it detailed in Geneva last week to berate Nepal at the UN Human Rights Council were to be applied to it fairly and squarely by the international community.
Indeed, what is Indian diplomacy trying to prove in Nepal? That Nepal is a tiny impoverished country, which is highly vulnerable to pressure from India’s national security state? It is difficult to quarrel with the Nepali Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli’s remark that India’s economic blockade of his country is more inhuman than war.
The sympathy of the world community will only lie with Nepal as the mounting humanitarian crisis in that country due to the Indian blockade snowballs during the harsh winter months and the western aid agencies and the UN relief organizations start expressing anguish and despair about India’s stony heart. The UNICEF has already highlighted the developing crisis.
Fundamentally, India’s neighborhood policies will be on roller coaster so long as the RSS controls the Modi government and dictates the policies. The RSS diktat to Shah on Friday shows the extent to which it not only prescribes India’s Nepal policies but fine tunes the diplomacy.
Shah is of course a mere handmaiden of the RSS. Simply put, a hopeless scenario presents itself.
Alas, India used to have brave, highly professional bureaucrats in the foreign-policy establishment who would give independent advice to the political masters on the merits of an issue, but that is yet another British legacy that is receding into history.
Bureaucrats who get catapulted by Modi out of turn to the top of the heap nowadays feel beholden to him for their rising career graph. They choose to be time-servers and pay heed to the RSS’ Hindutva agenda, hoping that the shadowy outfit’s goodwill is all that counts in the Modi era for their career advancement.
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