The basic premise of this study is that three recent developments, i.e., the economic rise of India, political transitions in South Asia and greater US presence in South Asia post-9/11 have the potential to transform relations between India and its South Asian neighbors. The previous chapters outlined how these factors are beginning to influence bilateral relations and pointed out possible future trajectory of relations as a result of these trends. India’s economic rise presents an opportunity for its neighbors. As mentioned before, Sri Lanka has already shown the way in terms of how these new economic links contribute to prosperity and stability. Transitions underway in many of South Asian countries will bring into the political mainstream previously marginalized actors and groups, some of whom like the Madhesis in Nepal will have an interest in building a stronger bilateral relationship with India. Finally, India is in a position to build new links with countries like Afghanistan through the encouragement of the US. Since the mid-twentieth century, South Asian states have been engaged in the simultaneous task of nation-building, state-building and economic development. The task of nation-building in many of these states has been complicated by the lack of a common unifying identity. This in turn has impacted the task of statebuilding and economic development. During the Cold War, the smaller South Asian countries, mindful of their weaknesses and fearful of a dominant and assertive India, were wary about the prospects of greater political and economic integration in South Asia. They found regional institutions like SAARC a useful vehicle to check India’s regional aspirations. India, on the other hand preferred to deal with its neighbors on a bilateral basis and saw SAARC more as an impediment than a tool to bring about greater regional cooperation. India also believed that the political conditions within its neighboring countries impacted its own domestic and external security and sometimes intervened (overtly and covertly) in what these states considered their internal affairs. Relations between India and its neighbors were therefore strained at many points during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War and the onset of a new phase of globalization have helped facilitate changes in South Asia. National security and economic development require regional security and economic arrangements in the new era. India’s economic rise has provided it with the opportunity to leverage trade and
economic cooperation as a means to persuade neighbors to be responsive to its interests. At the same time, its economic rise (and reforms) has opened up the possibility that the smaller South Asian countries may gain access to the large Indian market and attract Indian private investors to their country. Economic links between India and all its neighbors have grown in recent times. This despite long-standing problems and tensions in bilateral relationships with countries like Pakistan and Nepal. The move towards creating sub-regional organizations like BIMSTEC indicates that some of the smaller states recognize the value of multi-lateral institutions in facilitating trade and economic cooperation. New economic linkages have provided India and its neighbors with the opportunity to move away from a singular focus on security-related issues, which were difficult to resolve in the absence of trust. The growing economic relationships are expected to create a positive climate in the region, helping bridge the trust-deficit and resolving bilateral security issues and problems. Greater regional integration would potentially allow India to exert influence over its neighbors, while its neighbors in turn can expect that India’s behavior would be modified as a result of these linkages. This view is drawn from the example of the EU, where France and Germany both believe that membership in the organization serves not only as a check against the other side’s regional ambitions, but also presents an opportunity to influence other European states without being accused of unilateral activism or seeming to be a regional bully. India’s economic rise therefore has the potential to reshape relations with its neighbors. Trade, economic cooperation, investment and tourism are already helping South Asian countries draw closer. This process is expected to continue in the future and therefore the prospects of better relations between India and its smaller neighbors appear encouraging. Many of the smaller South Asian states have struggled to build a functioning democracy within their territory. Ethnic diversity, poor levels of economic development, internal conflicts, dependence on foreign countries, exclusion of minorities, elite-domination and weak state institutions are just a few of the many factors that have undermined the prospects of democracy in the region. Some authoritarian leaders and groups were able to mobilize support for their regimes by raising the threat of Indian dominance. Tensions in bilateral relations were exploited to resist domestic demands for change. Good relations with India would be counter-productive for these leaders and groups and hence there was little movement forward in bilateral relations. India itself has never been a strong believer in democracy promotion, believing that political change should emanate from within the country. Under the circumstances, India decided to cultivate what it believed were groups that would support its interests in the region, no matter whether they stood for democracy or not. These decisions were not without tragic consequences, like the initial support to the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. However, South Asia is in the midst of political transition. There has been a general movement towards more inclusive politics, especially in Nepal. India has welcomed the process of political change in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and
Nepal. This in itself is a departure from Cold War-era policies. Ultimately, India recognizes that a successful democratic transition within these countries would help create a stronger basis for bilateral relations. It would certainly lead to greater accountability and more protection for minority groups. In the Nepalese case, it would allow the Madhesis an opportunity to gain political power and influence. In the Sri Lankan case, it would allow the Tamils an opportunity to secure their demands through peaceful means. If successful, both these processes would help India gain leverage over the governments of neighboring countries. As democracy takes root, the likelihood of violent internal conflicts breaking out would also lessen. This in turn would mean that India would have less need (and opportunity) to intervene in the affairs of the smaller neighboring countries. India has chosen to support the transition underway in many of the smaller South Asian countries. However, it has not abandoned its core regional interests. As the situation in these smaller countries evolves, India will attempt to protect its allies within these countries as well as look for new ones. Some transitions have to be monitored carefully to ensure that they do not degenerate into violence or lead to “flawed” democracies. In the case of Nepal, inflexible stands adopted by major political forces and unstable domestic coalitions have frequently brought the country to the brink during the last few years. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, majoritarian political institutions continue to give rise to dissatisfaction among minorities and the opposition. India needs to continue its support to the political transitions underway in these countries. Political change is not something to be feared. In fact, liberal traditions highlight the shared interests and lack of conflict between democracies. Over time, the democratization process within these states is expected to unleash private economic interests free of excessive government control. Trade and economic cooperation between India and its neighbors will be facilitated by shared values and institutions. “The War on Terror” has led to deeper US engagement with many of the South Asian countries, including India. While the US has been primarily concerned with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has also supported other governments in South Asia engaged in their own struggles against terrorism. Since the end of the Cold War, India’s own relations with the US have improved. Greater visibility of the US in many of its neighboring countries is no longer deemed a threat to its security. In fact, the two countries have found that their interests have converged on many issues, including trade, defense, science, education and international terrorism. India’s economic rise continues to draw the two countries towards each other. A rising middle class, an emerging market, increased trade and an increasingly influential Indian-American community in the US has been the catalyst for change in bilateral relations in the post-Cold War era. India has cautiously welcomed US presence in the South Asian region. In Afghanistan, India perceives the US as an indispensable actor. Continued US support to the Afghan regime and pressure on the Taliban and Al Qaeda serve India’s geopolitical interests. In fact, India has been concerned about the 2014 deadline set by the US to draw down from Afghanistan. India hopes that even if
the US withdraws most of its forces, it would continue to closely monitor the security situation in Afghanistan. In recent times, the US has also recognized the stabilizing role India has played in Afghanistan and its developmental support to the latter. Mutual interests on Afghanistan will facilitate continued bilateral cooperation in the region. As in Afghanistan, the US has tried to support the government of Bangladesh in addressing the challenge of radical Islamic fundamentalists groups. With regard to Nepal, the US has modified its stance regarding the Maoists in line with India. Initially distrustful of the Maoists, the US declared that it would not remove the sanctions imposed against the Maoists unless there was a demonstrable commitment from them to abjure violence. This despite the Maoists’ willingness to participate in talks with mainstream political parties, aimed at bringing lasting peace in Nepal. Today, the US no longer proscribes the Maoists as a terrorist group and has welcomed the participation of all groups in Nepal’s constitution-writing process. It has extended support to Nepal in the form of developmental assistance through agencies like USAID. With respect to Sri Lanka, the US has helped promote the cause of democratic accountability and the rule of law by insisting that that the government takes steps to address allegations of human rights violations by Sri Lankan soldiers against Tamil civilians, particularly during the last few weeks of the civil war. US policy regarding Pakistan continues to be one of the points of disagreement between India and the US. India has long tried to persuade successive US administrations to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. However, the geo-strategic importance of Pakistan to the US as well as strong history of military relationship between the two sides has precluded such a possibility. Nevertheless, the experience of the US in Afghanistan has at least convinced it that there are certain rogue elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence community that are inimical to US interests. This has gradually eroded its trust in the military as a strong ally. It is hoped that this will lead to a movement away from favoring military-dominated or military-led regimes in Pakistan. In the past, the military was seen as a reliable partner and a force for stability in Pakistan but this may change. US support to civil society and political parties in Pakistan will go a long way in reducing the dominance of the military in domestic politics. For all the above reasons, the deeper engagement of the US in South Asia has been welcomed by India.