A series of fall outs with all India’s smaller neighbours have characterised the diplomatic scenario under PM Narendra Modi. Institutionalised condescending diplomacy from Congress times and a traditional Western imperial influence in foreign policy that often threatens South Asian and Eurasian interests, had always led to India being resented as the regional big-brother. But under Modi, the domestic hyper-nationalist communal agenda exacerbated the situation, leading to a series of rows with regional allies, some of who shared our animosity with Pakistan, defeating the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) own aim to diplomatically isolate the western neighbour.
Bangladesh, the virulently secular polity nurtured by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman – his legacy continued by his daughter Sheikh Hasina – in the aftermath of the Pakistan Army unleashing the second biggest genocide after the Holocaust on the Bangladeshis in 1971, shares its staunch resistance to non-state terror emanating from Pakistan. It is a different matter that Pakistan’s ally then, which turned a blind eye towards the massacre while masquerading as the “champion of democracy and human values”, was the US. It sent a carrier battle group to attack India and prevent it from routing its murderous friend in the ensuing Bangladesh Liberation War, while the communist USSR came to our rescue. It ended in a momentous victory, still celebrated as the pinnacle of India’s history.
Nearly 50 years later, Hasina is left fumbling before her opponents, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, as anti-Muslim Hindutva politics rolls out under Mr Modi. But things got to a head following PM Modi’s push for the CAA-NRC policies (Citizenship Amendment Act – National Register of Citizens), which had the implicit assumptions that (1) Bangladesh crowds Assam with illegal immigrants causing demographic disturbances, and; (2) Bangladesh also persecuted religious minorities since it is one of those the countries from which such a class of people are granted citizenship under the CAA. In an interview to Gulf News in Abu Dhabi in January this year, Ms Hasina has described the CAA as “not necessary”.
Prior to that in October last year, her irritation over India abruptly stopping the export of onions to meet the domestic demand was palpable in a quip when she said she would have to “ask her cook to stop using onions” in his menu. India brazenly did another ‘onion’ encore, when the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry conveyed its “deep concern” over the second such uninformed ban to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka.
Iran is a classic example of being disenchanted with India owing both to the ethnoreligious xenophobia and American influence in Indian foreign policy. A bulwark against radicalism amidst India’s Shia population, especially in the icy heights of Kargil, Iran had also supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. However, being possibly the only Middle East country still invested in the Palestinian plight against Israel, Iran has been quite vocal during far-right Hindu upheavals in India. For a country which helped smoothen a brief strain with the Muslim world, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, through a visit by then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, statements by its current Supreme Leader and Foreign Minister now over Kashmir and the February Delhi riots is history repeating itself.
On August 29 last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Movahedi-Kermani called the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy an “ugly act”, warning India to “prevent confrontations” with Muslims, during Friday prayers. Then on March 2, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said they “Condemned the…organized violence against Indian Muslims,” in a tweet, following the communal violence in Delhi. “For centuries, Iran has been a friend of India. We urge Indian authorities to ensure the well-being of all Indians and not let senseless thuggery prevail.” That it was only extreme communalism under the BJP forcing Iran to discard diplomatic niceties is a trivialization of its larger geopolitical suffering under the US, to which India has willy-nilly been a party.
It was under the pressure of self-styled US sanctions that India could not proceed speedily with the investments in Chabahar, its much-touted gateway to Central Asia, causing a lot of frustration amidst Iranian officials. That India’s most culturally and historically closest ally remained under cruel sanctions even at the height of the pandemic did not seem to move Indian diplomats, who had scaled down their oil purchases from Iran. Eventually, a desperate Iran dropped India from the Chabahar port project, while signing a $400 billion economic and military deal with China, the latter which has been eager to expand its gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region.
India’s complete acquiescence to American unilateralism in the Middle East, was seen when New Delhi did not offer even a shrouded criticism of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination by the US that nearly sparked another war. With Syria already burning after the US-backed anti-Assad uprising and the subsequent aerial bombing in the country, another war would have invited apocalyptic chaos. But India used the term “killing” (rather than “assassination”) saying the increase in tension alarmed the “world” (and not India) and did not identify the instigator (the US).
Meanwhile, American sanctions got harsher worsening the unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis in the Persian country, with ineffective resistance from Europe and not even a whimper of protest from India. The bow broke when Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani lamented Iran’s “friends not standing up to America” on September 5 in a live broadcast on state television. “Over the past months since the coronavirus arrived in our country…no one came to our help (as the) heartless and the evil United States imposed new sanctions and pressures…these past seven months of coronavirus. Not a single friendly country told us that ‘we will stand up to America’ and do business with Iran despite threats of U.S. retaliation,” Rouhani said, widely seen addressed to India and Europe.
The Himalayan nation of Nepal has long been a casualty of India’s meddlesome conduct – even before its arduous transition from an oppressive monarchy to a democratically elected communist state. If a devastating earthquake in 2015 was not enough, India within a few months imposed a blockade of essential items like petroleum, cooking gas and medical relief material, to force Nepal to accommodate Madhesi agitators’ demands.
This turned every Nepali against India. While India still denies imposing the blockade, activists and politicians have provided evidence of the blockade from border crossings in Bihar and UP. The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) chief Pushpa Kumar Dahal Prachanda expressed his resentment in a speech in September 2015 when he said, “Nepal wants to be a good friend of India, not a yes man.”
Five years later, the Nepalese protest over India arbitrarily including the tri-junction of Kalapani-Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura in a new map was claimed to be China’s doing, poaching India’s neighbours as a part of its diplomatic offensive over the Ladakh standoff. The government’s social media warriors and its army chief, General MM Naravane – who claimed on May 16 this year that the protest in Nepal was “on someone else’s behalf”, alluding to China, forget that the issue was six months old. The publishing of the map and Nepal’s subsequent objections were reported since October, the previous year in 2019, coincidentally culminating with the embarrassing Chinese incursions in May. His recent visit to Nepal which saw him being bestowed with the honorary rank of the Nepal Army chief will do little to close the deep trust deficit, beyond tokenism.
The two-month Doklam standoff between India and China that ended in August 2017 saw the deep-set resentment amongst Bhutan’s policymakers on India’s insistence on guiding Bhutan’s foreign policy emerge more prominently. They claim New Delhi has always denied the tiny mountain kingdom the freedom to forge its own diplomatic path that prevented Bhutan and China resolving their own disputes independently, a view also supported within China. Bhutan and China do not have direct diplomatic relations embassies and have to route communications through India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
Wangcha Sangye, a popular blogger of Bhutan wrote: “Why do Indian media and politicians want to castrate Bhutan for the most harmless relationship effort with China?” Sangye was referring to the June 2013 election defeat of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa’s (DPT) Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley to the rival People’s Democratic Party (PDP). It was widely seen as India’s clandestine support to the PDP since the former had grown uncomfortable with Thinley building independent ties with China. Around the same time, India resorted to its penchant for choking a small country of its essentials, when it stopped subsidising kerosene and cooking gas.
“People in Bhutan think that India has for too long prevented their country from normalising diplomatic ties and negotiating a border settlement with China,” wrote former Indian ambassador P. Stobdan, an expert on Himalayan affairs in The Wire on July 11, 2017, at the height of the Doklam standoff.
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)
Modi’s refusal to sign the RCEP in November last year too was seen as defeating his own Act East and Neighbourhood First policies, putting temporary hits to his domestic economy ahead of geo-economic integration. The RCEP envisages the largest free trading bloc in the world, between the ten members of the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Philippines – with their five Free Trade Agreement partners including China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The region that comprises 30% of the world’s population and nearly the same amount of its GDP, while only briefly hurting domestic Indian industry owing to cheaper products from these nations, would have integrated India into regional supply chains that automatically gives it a diplomatic say in regional politics. “The world’s most successful regions have strong intra-regional economic ties…the European Union, East Asia and North America. South Asian countries are missing a trick by ignoring the potential of their immediate neighbourhood,” said Sanjay Kathuria a former lead economist and coordinator for regional integration in South Asia at the World Bank in an article in the Indian Express on May 12 this year.
Neither does the economic reasoning of increasing the existing trade deficit with China hold water with “China itself moving a lot of its labour-intensive industries to other countries,” according to Professor Zhang Weiwei, director of the China Institute at Fudan University. Zhang made the comment on November 16 last year as a part of a visiting Chinese think-tank delegation to Indian journalists. It was also pointed out that joining RCEP would automatically make Indian industries competitive, improve India’s dismal manufacturing sector and increase industrialization, the ultimate goal of any economy.
Udit Misra, in an essay in the Indian Express on June 22, 2020, demystifies trade deficits that have been actively cited as a major disadvantage before China, forcing India to become protectionist. “India has a trade surplus with the US, the UK and the Netherlands. But that doesn’t mean the Indian economy is stronger than any of them. A trade deficit with China only means that Indians buy more Chinese products than what the Chinese from India…Per se is not a bad thing. It shows Indian consumers – who made these purchases voluntarily – are now better off than what they would have been had they bought. It also shows that India is not capable of producing for its own people in the most efficient manner.”
But Modi’s refusal to sign the RCEP was celebrated as an exemplary determination upholding Indian interests, buttressing the image of a strongman taking tough, bitter decisions, regardless of how disastrous the consequences of other such “bold” calls were. Such immunity from criticism amidst an unprecedented economic downturn, a public health emergency, and a tenuous global situation stretching across two continents with nuclear powers forebodes a grim future for mankind.