Picket fences

'I'll go ask Mom', the kid walks away after being denied a transgression by the dad. That pretty sums up India's current foreign policy's regional doctrine caught between its limited means and waning wits and the bottomless pockets and the ever expansionist policies of its neighbor to the north. Till not too long ago, India was the sole beacon of benevolence (and overbearance) in the subcontinent (observe how even the phrase 'Indian Subcontinent' is slowly replaced with 'South Asia' blurring the Indian influence even in cartographical parlance, leaving only 'Indian Ocean' as the lone surviving symbol of the country's once glorious past) that its neighbors both needed (and resented), while China looked away consolidating its own presence in the international arena, leaving the region to the bits and pieces players. The economic boom did as much good to India's fortunes establishing it as the key player in soft services as it made China to sit up and take notice of the growing competition right in its own backyard. There have been many instances in history of nations vying with each other creating fiefdoms and establishing reigns and Empires, the most recent being the Western European powers - the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch - going round the world, marking their territories and presiding over them for centuries together. But the main difference between those times and the present ones is the shrinking size of the pie that super powers have to now contend with, as against undiscovered territories, regions, countries and continents that the Empires of yesteryears had the luxury of plundering to their hearts content. The fight now is over scraps and the strategy is simply who is offering a better deal. And India finds itself as the mom and pop store in the neighborhood struggling to compete against a multi brand retail behemoth that opened right across the street, offering throwaway prices and plethora options. This kind of tight marketplace situation between neighboring nations is bound to spill over into other areas like regional security, bilateral relations, and obviously, the economies.

An example: Following the 2009 purge of the Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan military, India played its usual heavy hand which forced the Sri Lankan government to constitute a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee to allow the native tamil population to forgive and forget join the mainstream. Kowtowing to its own internal pressures of doing more to the Tamils, India leaned even harder on Sri Lanka to the point of supporting a joint UN resolution condemning the widespread military's excesses during and post-war. An irked and irate Sri Lanka, who till then counted India, even with its condescension, as a trusted partner, turned towards China and sought its helping hand in the reconstruction efforts in the infrastructure and stock piling on the military front - the two sectors that rolled out the red carpets to Indian companies and contractors, till then, without ever encouraging another thought about shopping elsewhere for a better deal. That, in short, is the 'I'll go ask Mom' doctrine that is currently reshaping the regional dynamics, making India feel for the first time the cold breath of the big brother over its shoulder.

Ignore Pakistan for a second here, which never accepted India's dominion over the region, that India paid back in kind by never according Pakistan the due legitimacy of a sovereign nation. Even in that case, the dance of Pakistan with China in matter relating to "regional cooperation" is a worrying prospect for India, who only recently sighed a huge breath of relief after US withdrew its unconditional support to Pakistan, only to see one super power replaced with another in a marriage of convenience yet again. Any protest of India over transfer of nuclear technology or building of massive hydal projects along the border regions or the perpetual bugaboo, the bilateral military camaraderie, that is currently transpiring between China and Pakistan, is quickly rebuffed by pointing at India's proximity to both the erst while and the lone super power. Pakistan is like that spoilt kid in the classroom that the teacher can do nothing about, neither tame him or nor teach him. Threatening doesn't work, as Pakistan clearly knows that a full blown war would hurt India more; snapping diplomatic relations would only exacerbate the situation sending Pakistan deeper into the embrace of an eager China. The only way that India got stuck with is put up with the shenanigans of Pakistan and force it to sit across the dialogue table and talk trade. Creating enough self interest in a nation so much so that it dreads at the prospect of losing it all, is the only way countries could be tamed, and unfortunately, Pakistan is a long way from taking a stock of its internal situation and try changing for the better. Until then India is saddled with a rogue neighbor, who can neither be brow beaten nor bought.

The case of India's Himalayan neighbor, Nepal, is an interesting study of the ill effects of overplaying a hand. In just the same way as US toyed with Iranian politics during the late 70s, propping up the Shah of Iran against tidal dissension in the populace, only to see it blow up spectacularly in its own face during the hostage crisis, a less bloodier version of the events transpired during the overthrowing of the Nepalese monarchy and the subsequent power grab politics between the Chinese backed Maoists and the India leaning mainstream parties. Leverage is only the trump card that is guaranteed an attentive ear in diplomatic circles, with money and power being its manifestations that work towards exerting influence over matters. Nepal has always been a cultural extension of India, and therefore enjoyed trade and diplomatic relations, which India took good advantage of practically dictating with whom Nepal should get in bed with and how long they shall remain bedfellows. This  inexorably created a resentment in some sections, which the perpetual dissenters of any society, the Maoists, took advantage of by launching a full frontal attack on the monarchy, accusing it as a puppet regime representing the interests of New Delhi at the expense of Khatmandu's. Like the adage, to kill a dog, call it mad, to pull down a government, brand it foreign controlled. Nothing ignites, flames and rouses better than calls of nationalism. And so after the toppling of the monarchy and the seemingly endless power battles between the gun toters and ballot advocates, India now finds itself holding on to the last vestige of leverage and influence, where mainstream parties dread at being looked at as proxies to Indian interests and the leftists, who downright loathe India's interference in its internal affairs, slowly inching into the canopy of China. And so, Pakistan - positively lost, Sri Lanka - miffed and moved away and Nepal - vowed never to return into the fold.

All it took was a mere three decades from being greeted as liberators to being treated as oppressors. In the current political climate where radicalism of all ilk - political, social, religious - is sweeping across the globe, providing refuge and rehabilitation to everyone from the disillusioned, disenchanted to downright demented, all it takes is the equivalent of a flip of a switch for all concerned to stake claims at the opposite ends of ideological spectrum and pitch tents there. Bangladesh started off as a pluralistic (at least, in thought and action) state where minorities didn't at least suffer on account of their faiths, unlike in its siamese twin that it split from. It is therefore tough to point out what one incident triggered the turn of Bangladesh from a friendly neighbor to outright hostile one. Certainly, the decades of border disputes, accusations of high handedness and arm twisting of the Indian military, the unresolved water sharing issues and the white elephant in the room, the steady stream of illegal refugees that cross the border into India on a daily basis, have certainly ratcheted up the tension and rhetoric on both sides, in both the political and military circles, erasing off the feelings of good faith and gratitude that Bangladesh had once held towards India. Add to that the seeds of mistrust sown as a result of the terror camps that were setup along the borders areas that religiously exported terror into India, made Bangladesh no longer a natural ally. All it needs is a sliver of antagonism and ISI would be right there prying the opportunity open with a crowbar flooding the extremist marketplace with hopefuls and prospects, risen from destitute, despair and desperation, a talent pool that the subcontinent always had a surplus of. And the only silver lining around this ever turning dark cloud is that China hasn't rushed in yet into the void of trust to fill it up with sweeter carrots and shorter sticks.

Myanmar is probably the country in contemporary history that has gotten into the good graces of the international community without completely shedding its image as a despotic state, ruthlessly ruled by the military junta. In this respect of propping up tyrannical regimes, irrespective of their political ideologies, the positions and policies of US and China are quite similar, in that, self interests and business interests take precedence over moral values and principles. During the era of political isolation and economic sanctions on Myanmar, for its indiscriminate and gross violation of human rights (with its sole face of dissent, Aung san suu kyi, held in house arrest for years together), China managed to befriend the military top brass, securing major military and civilian contracts, in exchange for a steady supply of materiel bypassing the sanctions. And there India stood during that period, on the sidelines, unwilling to act against the global will, at the same time helpless to stop the budding relationship between China and Myanmar, sulking away in silence unable to decide which side to be on, image or interests. Now with token democracy being allowed by the Myanmar regime and sanctions being gradually phased out, the big players - US and EU bloc - suddenly rushed into the market for lucrative contracts, fighting for the remains of what China didn't want to be a part of, leaving a fuming India scrambling for an also ran place in the race.

That, in short, is where India stands right now vis-a-vis its neighbors, with every border sharing nation shying away from long term commitments with India, at the same time moving closer toward the dragon nation. The problem with India's foreign policy has always been the constant vacillation between idealism and pragmatism. While the rest of world dropped its facade of ideology at the slightest whiff of self interest, India finds itself clinging on to the letter of the law, much to its own detriment. Even when the purported moral police of the world, the US, found no problem in getting into bed with China, crying hoarse on its human rights violations, civil libeteries tramplings, unfair trade regulations and illegal currency manipulations, (like a constantly abused but never leaving wife), India surrendered its long standing cozy relationship with Iran, at the behest of the international community, all for a little less than a pat on the back. World fears power, and world loves business and business accumulates power (first through wealth and then through might). China understood this long back and got its house in order, becoming the economic clearing house for the entire world. This didn't happen overnight, this was a concerted effort from the 70's and it took them close to four decades to reap the rewards. And it is a historic fact that the world surrendered more to power than to principle. In the current cutthroat world of competing parties with conflicting interests, India has to wake up to the idea that power and principle are mutually exclusive and no longer causal - principle doesn't beget power anymore. And with its chief competitor, rival and nieghbor, breathing down its neck, vying for the same resources in the common backyard, India can no longer afford to be tied up, bound and gagged to remain immobile and incapacitated by its adherence to some lofty ideals that never got it anywhere, 'coz in business, being noble is not the same as being profitable.

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