India’s neighbourhood policy has of late attracted scrutiny not only because of our troubled relationship with many of our neighbours but also because of projections, including at the level of the Prime Minister, that a peaceful neighbourhood is a sine qua non for the realization of its growth ambitions. It is not without significance that many Pakistanis have for long pedaled a similar self serving view, urging India to meet Pakistan’s demands on the grounds that the failure to do so had led to the prevailing fractious environment which was stymieing India’s global ambitions.
While the increased attention to our neighbourhood policy is to be welcomed it is too much to suggest that a stable neighbourhood is absolutely mandatory for India’s progress. There are countries, like for example China or South Korea, which despite a fractious relationship with some of their neighbours have nevertheless done remarkably well. Accordingly, there is no reason why India cannot do likewise even if it has one or more unfriendly neighbours given good governance and sagacious leadership. While it should certainly strive for a harmonious relationship with all its neighbours this should not be at the cost of its core national interests.
It is a sad but unfortunate truism that many of India’s neighbours regard it, often quite wrongly, as selfish and overbearing and seek to countervail it through relationships with regional and extra regional powers. With a view to rectifying the situation many recommendations have, from time to time, been made about changes required in the conduct of India’s dealings with its neighbours. While some are eminently reasonable, others are unnecessary and even counter productive.
Some of the recommendations that merit favourable consideration may be enumerated as follows:
- Most of our neighbours suffer from a deep sense of neglect due to the absence of sustained linkages particularly at the political level. Exchange of high level visits between India and each of its neighbours on a frequent and regular basis related to the entire gamut of national activity would help alleviate this feeling of neglect and also foster closer understanding and cooperation. It would, in addition, minimise misperceptions about India and promote mutual trust.
- In its exchanges with each of its neighbours India must not hesitate in spelling out its expectations and laying down red lines that should never be crossed in relation to its core interests. In this context, while India should be relatively relaxed about the linkages developed by its neighbours with other regional or extra regional powers it should certainly frown upon such linkages being used against its interests.
- Proactive steps must be taken to resolve at the earliest long standing political and economic disputes with each of its neighbours which inevitably vitiate the relationship;
- Jointly evolve with each neighbour comprehensive economic, commercial, educational and cultural cooperation programmes designed to create win win situations for both countries and integrate them more closely. Joint management of waters, connectivity, energy grids, easier movement of peoples etc could all form part of this exercise.
- India’s implementation record in fulfillment of political and economic understandings solemnly undertaken leaves much to be desired. Time bound fulfillment of its promises is essential if India is to command respect.
India has sometimes been quite unnecessarily faulted for lacking an overarching South Asia policy and being overly focused on security related issues.
In regard to the former it may be pointed out that, given the enormous difference in the nature, depth, complexity and texture of India’s relationship with each of its neighbours, adoption of a common policy towards all of them is neither possible nor desirable. For instance, India’s policies towards Nepal---a country with which it has open borders and free movement of people --- cannot possibly be replicated with Pakistan--- a country with which it has fought four wars and which constantly seeks to undermine it.
Similarly, India’s focus on security related issues is both natural and necessary as this happens to be a core concern for us and we can only avoid it at our peril.
Worse still is the proposition enshrined in the Gujral doctrine and reiterated in the recently enunciated Non Alignment 2.0, put out by a group of eminent Indian analysts, that India must constantly go the extra mile to reassure its neighbours and be prepared for unilateral concessions rather than insist on reciprocity. It is no one’s case that India should not err on the side of generosity in dealing with neighbours who are mindful of its concerns. For instance, in the case of Bangladesh which has been helpful to us in addressing our concerns on critical issues like terrorism and connectivity we should be much more proactive than we have been in terms of finalizing an agreement on the sharing of the Teesta waters, implementing the border settlement accord, fast tracking the projects envisaged under the $1 billion line of credit extended and in fact even doubling the amount of the credit accorded. But a similar generous approach vis a vis Pakistan which misses no opportunity to stab India in the back would be counterproductive. Indeed, it can be argued that India’s failure to penalize Pakistan for its involvement in terrorist activities directed against India has only emboldened it to continue in its anti Indian policies in a business as usual mode.
Indian history is replete with the accord of unilateral concessions made by it to its neighbours but they have neither been reciprocated nor led to better relations. For instance, neither the Indus Waters Treaty nor the Simla Agreement induced Pakistan to give up its inimical policies in regard to India. Under the former India despite being the upper riparian with 40% of the catchment of the Indus waters gave Pakistan the right to 80% of the waters and under the latter it gave up without any quid pro quo the over 5000 square miles of territory captured by it during the 1971 conflict and the nearly 92000 PoWs in its custody. Similarly, all the unilateral Indian gestures to win over China such as abandoning its own special rights in Tibet, recognizing China’s claim to Tibet, canvassing for the PRC government’s representation in the UN, etc came to nought and were reciprocated by China’s seizure of Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir and its attack on India in 1962.
In these circumstances, we would be well advised to desist from making any unilateral concessions towards any country and adhere to the time tested practice of dealing with all countries, including neighbours, on the basis of reciprocity. Where a neighbour addresses our concerns we must richly reward it and where it acts against us we must strictly penalize it.