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Raushan Raj asked: What caused India's diplomatic misadventures in Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka?

Ashok Kumar Behuria replies: This question wrongly preconceives that India was on an adventure, on the diplomatic front, in the neighbourhood, and it has backfired. In reality, this is not the way one should look at diplomacy or foreign policy practices of a state. In the post-Cold War period, the regional geo-political reality has changed massively. India's policy preferences have changed too, to address a whole new set of challenges that have popped up on the horizon, while some of the old challenges have become even more complex and complicated.

All states in the neighbourhood have adopted democratic modes of governance over the last one decade and are passing through intense socio-political churning at the internal level. And added to that is the Chinese determination to increase its economic and strategic footprint in the region and its blissful unconcern about Indian reactions.

In this context, at one level, India is finding it extremely difficult to negotiate with the vicissitudes of internal political developments in each of the neighbouring states, especially when there is a temptation by political entrepreneurs in these states to mobilise support on the basis of imagined fear of India. At another level, the natural dynamic of a large state inducing fear/sense of insecurity among its neighbours kicks in, with the familiar realist strategy of ‘balance of power’ pursued by these comparatively smaller states to fend off any possible domination by India.

From the Indian viewpoint, even if India has been quite un-hegemonic in its approach, it is genuinely concerned about the erosion of its influence in the neighbourhood, and is trying its best to maintain its preponderance (to be distinguished from domination or hegemony) and build a conducive security environment in the region. This explains India's renewed interest in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), its initiative to strengthen sub-regional connectivity and un-threaten the neighbours through non-reciprocal concessions and economic engagement, as the most promising economy in the region with sustained growth for over a decade.

Simultaneously, India is seeking to bring down the barriers to liberal economy at home to bring greater stability and prosperity to its own people as well as the wider region. India's positive engagement with the United States and the wider world has to be seen from this perspective.

Unfortunately, this is being seen by some countries as an attempt to bring about a new balance-of-power in the Asian context and therefore some of the countries in the neighbourhood, who have been traditionally hostile to India, have tried to misinterpret Indian foreign policy behaviour as adventurist and aggressive. On the contrary, it is the smaller neighbours who have tried to ignore Indian sensitivities and sought to tag along with extra-regional powers with an ease unforeseen in the past.

It is encouraging that even without much diplomatic effort from the Indian side, there is a realisation dawning in the neighbourhood, especially at the domestic level, that there is a need to recognise and address India's genuine concerns and work towards inspiring mutual trust and confidence among neighbours, rather than engage in combative ultra-nationalist rhetoric and build a paradigm of hostility vis-à-vis India, at a time when India is ready and willing to build a mutually profitable regional economic and security architecture. This manifested in the political shifts and turns in Nepal and Sri Lanka and the same process is on in Maldives as well.

Hopefully, India's natural cultural and emotional affinity with all countries in the neighbourhood will continue to act as a centripetal pull, one believes, to forge a constructive synergy in the strategic pursuits of all regional countries, unless there is a pathological fear-cum-hatred of India, as in the case of Pakistan.

Posted on September 05, 2016

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