Decoding a fractious subcontinent

The strength of India’s strategic relations with its neighbours in 2014 is predicated not just on the general election but also on its willingness to connect with a higher level of internal plurality

Jayant Prasad Delhi 

The Indian subcontinent is a ramshackle conglomeration of States, fractured by partitions of perception and identity. This is evidenced by the manner in which British India was divided into two nations, and Pakistan too was split 24 years later. An editor of a major South Asian newspaper, intent on decrying the potential of South Asian cooperation, described the region as nothing but the old British Indian Empire (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), plus the surrounding hill kingdoms (Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan) and the Indian Ocean Islands (Sri Lanka and the Maldives).  

But the subcontinent is not simply a cluster of proximate South Asian states sharing a defined cartographic space. Their contiguity is complemented by a common cultural legacy. The link of their historic connectivity runs through Kabul, Lahore and Delhi, all the way to the Bay of Bengal. A similar link runs through Bamyan, Taxila and Nalanda, which extends further to centres in China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. These cultural links are buttressed by physical ones: through the movement of peoples and goods, along the silk routes and the Grand Trunk Road. The subcontinental States are united also by the challenges they face: ending violence, eradicating poverty, generating employment and economic growth, and securing caste, ethnic and gender equality, and social equity.

With about a quarter of the world’s population spread over just four percent of the global surface, the region constitutes the world’s second least developed one, after Sub-Saharan Africa. Its per capita GDP, in terms of purchasing power parity, is three times below the global average. It has the lowest adult literacy rate in the world, lower than that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Between them, the South Asian States have more poor people than the rest of the world put together. There is a dramatic disproportion between their populations and their share in global output and trade.

Naturally, good relations with neighbours ought to be a priority for India. Its global margin of maneuvre is limited as much by domestic constraints as by a tough neighbourhood, which like India itself, is bristling with terrorism and insurgencies. Other adverse factors include weak governance, societies subverted by extra-legal power centres, destructive forces within State structures that aid and abet terrorism, cross-border migration, the ever-looming threat of natural and man-made disasters, and the challenges of pandemics and climate change. These have a high contagion quotient, given South Asia’s extraordinary population density.

Our neighbourhood is also part of a region riddled with paradoxes. While South Asia has one of the world’s most rapidly expanding markets, the gap between rich and poor people, as also rich and poor sub-regions, has grown dramatically, making it a subcontinent of sharp divergences. While individual States are integrating with the global economy, with India increasing its foreign trade three-fold between 2006 and 2012 to nearly $800 billion, intra-regional trade remains well below double-digit figures, making South Asia the least economically integrated area in the world. South Asian States are connected more to the outside world than to each other.

Could we expect any better in 2014?

This is unlikely, especially in relation to Pakistan. Successive attacks in 2008, first the July 7 bombing of the Indian Mission in Kabul, followed by the massacre in Mumbai on November 26, have become indelible reminders of the direct nexus between Pakistan-based terrorist groups and the Pakistan Army. Afghan and Indian officials were quick to spot the ISI hand in these events. WikiLeaks cables subsequently confirmed this. Senior US CIA officials confronted their Pakistani counterparts with evidence that the ISI helped plan the attack on the Indian Mission, besides tasking the Haqqani network to kill Indian officials, development workers and engineers in Afghanistan. Similar evidence is available regarding the Mumbai attack. There is little proof that this nexus has since been broken.

There was early promise that, post-elections, Pakistan would take quick action on the Mumbai attack perpetrators and resume the eight-segment bilateral dialogue. India remained undeterred in its efforts to pursue peace initiatives even in the face of continued incidents of terrorism, but the subsequent Line of Control violations derailed the dialogue process. Nawaz Sharif has himself come to the conclusion that no movement can be expected until India’s Lok Sabha elections next year.

In Pakistan, India awaits the movement of the civilian-military equation in a more positive direction, as also the enlargement of the constituency for better India-Pakistan relations. There is some churning within Pakistan, related to its India policy, induced partly by the realization that time might work in India’s favour. Public support for peace with India has grown. These trends, however, remain weak within its polity. Given India’s role in the creation of Bangladesh and Pakistan’s nationhood being the Boolean negative of India, the continuing paranoia in Pakistan about Indian motives should not be underestimated.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2013