Choice of Crises

If India can't pull its weight in its own backyard, it is unlikely to become a player to reckon with on the global stage 

Srinath Raghavan Delhi

Contemporary Indian foreign policy is routinely described as a tale of the rise of a great power: the world's largest democracy taking its rightful place on the high table of world politics. The recently concluded nuclear deal with the US is seen as a significant step in this direction. The central problem with this narrative is that it is oblivious of India's handling of strategic challenges in its own neighbourhood. The record here is decidedly mixed. All too often, New Delhi has been caught out by unforeseen developments and has been forced to improvise responses. Even on issues where the initiative lay with it, India has been unable to push forward in the right direction. These trends are exemplified by India's approach to the multiple crises brewing in its neck.

Consider India's relations with Pakistan. The UPA government came to power at a time when India-Pakistan ties were on the ascendant. In 2003, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then prime minister, had launched an initiative to end the Kashmir dispute. Spurred by the changed international context after September 2001 and the increasing threat from the jehadi groups within Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, then president, threw his weight behind the peace process in 2005. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to grasp the incipient shift in Pakistan's stance and declared that he was ready for any solution short of redrawing boundaries.

Subsequent back-channel talks between Indian and Pakistani diplomats SK Lambah and Tariq Aziz resulted in a framework agreement: no redrawing of the line of control; greater political autonomy to both parts of Kashmir; troop reductions by India in response to de-escalation of violence by militant groups; joint management of issues of common concern such as water, power and communications; opening the LoC for trade and travel. The agreement would at once preserve both sides' interests and enable them to avoid loss of face.

New Delhi, however, wasted precious time considering when and how to make the agreement public. The Indian leadership's prevarication stemmed at least in part from concerns about how the agreement would fare in the domestic political marketplace.

India's inability to seize the moment consigned the peace process to a limbo. Musharraf's departure from office has left India with no strong and credible interlocutor with whom a deal can be struck. The centres of power in Pakistan are in a state of flux and it is not clear when the framework agreement will be taken up again - if at all. This is a pity, for recent moves such as opening the LoC for trade and the announcement of elections in Kashmir should have been part of a settlement. Instead, India is forced to adopt piece-meal measures, which are unlikely to have much impact on the underlying problem.

Furthermore, there is an increasingly vocal body of opinion in the US which argues that the Obama administration should push both sides towards a settlement. If the history of such attempts is anything to go by, overt US involvement will make it domestically difficult for India to reach a settlement, and will encourage Pakistan to stake out for more.

Afghanistan presents yet another challenge for India's regional policy. The removal of the Taliban regime in 2001 enabled India to carve a niche for itself in the country after over two decades in the wilderness. India's aims were straightforward: ensure a stable regime in Kabul which would not be overtly dependent on Pakistan and would not provide sanctuary for jehadi groups operating in Kashmir. New Delhi sought to achieve these by building close ties with the Karzai government, by acting as a major donor for reconstruction, and by contributing to a variety of humanitarian and developmental activities.

However, factors have constrained India's freedom of manoeuvre. Pakistan's sensitivity to the growing Indian presence was expected; the onset of a neo-Taliban insurgency was not.

The resurgence of the Taliban coupled with Pakistan's fitful attempts to tackle them in the tribal areas has considerably worsened the security situation in Afghanistan. The bombing of the Indian embassy might well be a portent of further attacks to come. India's response to the attack was buttressed by American condemnation of Pakistan's complicity. But finger-wagging can only go so far. The important question is how and to what extent can India shape the unfolding events in Afghanistan?

Over the last few months, there are increasing calls for talking to ‘moderate Taliban sections' and possibly co-opting them in a future dispensation. Pakistan, of course, has been a strong proponent of this line. While India cannot head off this possibility, it certainly needs to step up its efforts in consultation with Iran and Russia. Whether or not Karzai is elected in 2009, New Delhi has to ensure that its political influence in Kabul is not eclipsed.


India's minimal involvement in Afghanistan over the last 20 years limits its options, but India's engagement with Sri Lanka over the same period casts a brooding shadow on its handling of the ongoing crisis in the island. The ill-fated IPKF intervention of the late 1980s resulted in what might be called the ‘Sri Lanka syndrome' - a strong aversion to political-military intervention in the internal affairs of neighbouring states. In principle, such a prudential stance is hard to disagree with. But in practice, it may be difficult to sustain. At the very least, it calls for political skills of a sufficiently high order to ensure that the military option does not get on to the menu.

The current crisis was precipitated by the Sri Lankan army's offensive against the LTTE in the north, including air strikes on populated areas. As international aid agencies pulled out, a humanitarian crisis broke. The political class in Tamil Nadu responded with clamorous calls, demanding that New Delhi convey its displeasure to Colombo and stress the need for a political settlement. The foreign secretary met with the Sri Lankan envoy and expressed ‘grave concern' at the plight of the civilians. The prime minister, too, has publicly called for a negotiated settlement.

Nevertheless, the government seems reluctant to move beyond gestural diplomacy and look for concrete options to facilitate a settlement. At a minimum, this would call for greater engagement with the Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka and a willingness to nudge Colombo to devolve powers in accordance with the constitutional amendment of 1987.

Colombo, for its part, has been eager to secure India's support, and has emphasised that while it favours a political settlement, the LTTE would have to be ‘disarmed'. The Sri Lankan army has had important successes; but it is far from certain that the LTTE is faced with imminent defeat. The humanitarian situation can, therefore, worsen in the months ahead.

In such a situation, sending a few hundred tonnes of food aid may scarcely suffice. Indeed, the presence of tens of thousands of refugees in Tamil Nadu could markedly change the terms of the debate and could bring the government under serious pressure. New Delhi might then have to do something, even if nothing useful can be done - a situation that would hardly be conducive for India to act in its best interests.

It is, of course, possible that we might, as so often, simply muddle through these crises. Yet it bears emphasising that if we fail to manage these problems, we will be forced to endure them. In any event, if India cannot pull its weight in its own backyard, it is unlikely to become a player to reckon with on the international stage.