India Talks Down to Its Neighbors

Last week, India spelled out its emerging thinking and policy toward its neighbors in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In a public speech, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran – the chief of the Indian diplomatic service – announced a more assertive approach, to which economic cooperation, leading to a South Asian common market, would be central.

The speech was meant to allay misgivings caused by India’s recent decision not to attend the annual SAARC summit in view of the political turmoil and disturbed security situation in Bangladesh and King Gyanendra’s coup in Nepal.

However, Foreign Secretary Saran may have ended up rustling more feathers than he bargained for. The neighbors are likely to see his speech as a hubris-driven attempt to declare India’s preeminence in South Asia and to talk down to them.

“The excessive assertiveness Saran outlined won’t go down well with India’s neighbors,” Zoya Hasan, professor of political science at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IPS.

Saran’s message to policymakers in SAARC was blunt: “India is today one of the most dynamic and fastest growing economies of the world. It constitutes not only a vast and growing market, but also a competitive source of technologies and knowledge-based services. Countries across the globe are beginning to see India as an indispensable economic partner.”

India’s neighbors, too, should seek to share in India’s economic destiny and the prospect of prosperity, added Saran. If they don’t, he warned, they will lose out and SAARC will become a “limping shadow” of its true potential.

Said Saran: “India accepts that as the largest country in the region and its strongest economy, it has greater responsibility to encourage the SAARC process. … It has already accepted the principle of nonreciprocity. We are prepared to do more.”

However, this will come at a price.

According to Saran, India’s neighbors must demonstrate sensitivity to its vital concerns, which “relate to allowing the use of their territories for cross-border terrorism and hostile activity, for example by insurgent groups.”

And then comes what many will see as a scarcely veiled threat by the Indian foreign secretary: “We need to create a positive and constructive environment by avoiding hostile propaganda and intemperate statements. India cannot and will not ignore such conduct and will take whatever steps are necessary to safeguard its interests.”

Aijaz Ahmad, an eminent scholar, who currently holds the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair at Jamia-Millia Islamia University in Delhi, argues that Saran’s assumption implies “that other SAARC members do not have their own vital security concerns and interests.”

“Apart from the great asymmetry of power between India and themselves, they also have reason to fear that India could arrogantly assert its hegemonic ambitions, as it did in the late 1980s by sending troops to Sri Lanka and Maldives and imposing an economic blockade on Nepal,” he said.

SAARC groups together India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepa, and the Maldives in a common South Asian forum on trade and security.

Saran was emphatic that economic issues must be at the core of SAARC’s rationale. Unlike, say, the European Union or Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), “the countries of South Asia, while occupying the same geographical space, do not have a shared security perception and, hence, a common security doctrine.”

But the foreign secretary admitted that SAARC’s record wasn’t inspiring and it had shied away from undertaking even a single collaborative project in its 20 years of existence.

“In fact, there is deep resistance to doing anything collaborative,” he pointed out.

It is true that SAARC has not taken up many collaborative projects, nor registered rapid progress toward a regional free-trade zone. But one reason for this is the apprehension among India’s neighbors about being overwhelmed. Bangladesh and Nepal have expressed reservations about accepting a free-trade regime and demanded special treatment as “least-developed” countries. Even Pakistan has been cautious in moving toward a South Asian Free Trade Area.

The neighbors’ fears are not baseless. In global forums, India expresses those very fears often vis-à-vis the developed countries. It resists the demand for free trade by hedging it with conditions of fairness and equity – as it successfully did at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting at Cancun in 2003. Even under its pro-neoliberal Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, India urges the developed countries to review the current terms of globalization “by making it more inclusive, more just, and more equitable.”

Yet, within SAARC, Indian behavior toward its economically weaker neighbors is very similar to the Northern states’ conduct toward the South globally.

Saran tried to soothe fears that India would impose its agendas upon its neighbors. He reassured them that “it respects their independence and sovereignty.” He also said that “as a flourishing democracy, India would certainly welcome more democracy … but that too is something that we may encourage and promote; it is not something that we can impose.”

Yet, he also warned, India “regards as unhelpful the display of narrow nationalism based on hostility that often becomes a cover for failure to deliver on promises made to their own peoples.”

The claim that Indian policy has never been influenced by “narrow nationalism” is unlikely to convince many in India’s neighborhood, and even a large number of liberal-spirited Indians.

Saran reserved his special criticism for Pakistan and Bangladesh by accusing them (without names) of seeking “association with countries outside the region or with regional or international organizations, in a barely disguised effort to counterbalance India.”

He also warned: “India would not like to see a SAARC in which some of its members perceive it as a vehicle primarily to countervail India or to seek to limit its room for maneuver.”

“If there continues to be a resistance to [cross-border] linkages within the region, even while seeking to promote linkages outside the region, if the thrust of initiatives of some of the members is seen to be patently hostile to India or motivated by a desire to contain India in some way, SAARC would continue to lack substance and energy,” added the foreign secretary.

But scholar Ahmad labels this as a case of double standards.

“India itself accords far greater importance to ASEAN than it does to SAARC. It regards the more developed ASEAN countries as closer to itself than India’s poorer neighbors India has also developed a ‘strategic partnership’ with the U.S. – partly to counter Pakistan.”

Such inconsistency cannot enhance India’s stature in its neighborhood. India’s self-perception as one of the most competitive, dynamic, and fastest growing economies of the world is not widely shared in the region. Some of India’s neighbors are happier to deal with, and benefit from, that undisputed economic growth story, China.

Saran’s suggestion that SAARC ought not to be used to countervail India can be interpreted as a statement that India is preeminent, it is more than equal to any of its neighbors. Such language is not particularly diplomatic. Nor is the harping on India’s rapid GDP growth – which has done little for its poor people.

Saran himself stated: “The challenge for our diplomacy lies in convincing our neighbors that India is an opportunity, not a threat; that far from being besieged by India, they have a vast, productive hinterland that would give their economies far greater opportunities.”

By that criterion, his speech did not rise to the challenge.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.