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Neighbours in Foreign Policy

Monday 14 May 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


At two ends of our far-flung country, one witnesses today visible stirrings for a democratic order. In the east, Bangladesh is in the throes of a general election promising to end eleven long years of virtual army rule. In the west, Pakistan is going through the excitement of Benazir Bhutto’s tumultuous return, rousing democratic forces to a pitch which the Marital Law regime had not seen since her father’s overthrow in 1977.

Significantly, at the helm of these democratic upsurges, leadership is held by two young women. Hasina Wajed, as the Awami League President, has emerged as the formidable contender for power in the event of a normal election next month in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, as the President of the PPP, is gathering forces for a concerted national demand for a general election, a demand which the Marital Law Generals are finding more and more difficult to suppress. Incidentally, the emergence of women political leaders in Bangladesh and Pakistan coupled with Indira Gandhi’s sixteen years as the Prime Minister of India, apart from Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure as Sri Lanka’s chief executive—is a testimony to the level of social enlightenment in South Asia, one of the most advanced sectors in the Third World.

Whether Hasina or Benazir wins in this round of their battle for democracy, it is obvious that the military regimes in two of our neighbouring countries have reached a terminal stage, even if one were not to forecast the exact date of their final collapse.

What does such a development portend for India? Naturally there is sympathy galore in this country for the success of democratic movements in our neighbourhood. This was so also when the Nepali Congress made its debut in its homeland, the picturesque kingdom that straddles the Himalayas, and the leaders of the Nepali Congress, from Koirala downwards, never felt any dearth of Indian hospitality whenever they were in difficulty. And even in the midst of the stresses and strains of our relationship with Sri Lanka today over that country’s failure to work out a viable solution for the ethnic Tamil problem, one need not forget the helping hand stretched out by the Indian Government to ward off the threat of an insurgent coup in the early seventies.

Similarly, the democratic forces in Pakistan could always count upon India as a friend and ally. It is not without significance that, barring the Indus Water Treaty Jawaharlal Nehru signed with President Ayub in 1960 and the Tashkant Declaration of 1966 between the same Ayub and Lal Bahadur Shastri, all agreements signed by the Indian Prime Ministers were with the civilian leaders in Pakistan, such as the Nehru-Liaqat Agreement, the Nehru-Noon Agreement right up to the Simla Agreement of 1972, which Indira Gandhi signed with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

With these current developments in Bangladesh and Pakistan therefore it is necessary for India’s foreign policy planners to have a comprehensive grasp of what really constitutes a good neighbourly policy. The past year-and-a-half have seen hi-fi publicity about India having worked out a new approach of friendship towards its neighbours. This has been a high-pressure publicity campaign in tune with the claims of the Janata Raj. The implication has been that under Indira Gandhi the neighbours were kept in the cold or browbeaten, and like the Janata yesterday, Rajiv Gandhi today has been turning over a new leaf. This has throughout been a highly superficial approach. This cared little for either historical experience or the realities on the ground.

Basically, the approach in the recent past has been to cultivate almost exclusively the bosses at the top, caring little for the public opinion in these countries. One could hear people in high places glibly talking about Zia being our best bet or Jayawardene as the trusting old uncle who means well.
Nobody will deny that at the government level, one has to deal with governments. But a wise foreign policy approach does not confine itself to protocol diplomacy. It is only when it moves beyond the narrow confines of diplomacy that its mettle for statesmanship is tested.

By this criterion it is not difficult to detect the folly of such a naïve approach as pursued in the recent past. For one thing, one could be led by the nose by Zia’s or Jayawardene’s super-public relations. And behind their bluff there is always the shifting of stand. General Zia has never taken an unequivocal stand on Kashmir or Khalistan or the nuclear bomb, which could be in consonance with India’s national interest. Secondly, to restrict oneself to the military caucus that runs Pakistan or to the cunning company that Jayawardene keeps would be short-sighted.

Zia’s tenure is becoming more and more fragile, and there is no need for India to be in a hurry to invest for shaky establishment with the respectability of Indian support, however indirectly, Jayawardene was offered India’s help in getting the moderate Tamil leadership to the conference table with the Sri Lanka authorities. When he calculatedly botched it up, it was the height of unwisdom to have got further involved with his problem via Thimpu, whose entire upshot was that the Government of India was virtually made to be the salesman of the terms that Jayawardene was offering to the Tamil groups while at the same time launching a military campaign which turned out to be a virtual genocide.

Lastly, all this so-called good neighbourhood exercise has been undertaken without any in-depth appreciation of the links these neighbouring countries have forged with the Big Powers whose interest in destabilisation in this area is well known. It is only a juvenile mind that can think of dealing with Pakistan without its American connection. In the case of Sri Lanka, its Western connections with the US, Britain, Israel and Pakistan are fast becoming a cardinal factor in working out its foreign policy. Can India deal with these two neighbours without taking into account these external forces?

The time has thus come when we can hardly work out a foreign policy projection towards Pakistan without keeping in mind Benazir Bhutto’s emerging influence, nor can we have an approach to Bangladesh without taking into account the possible outcome of the impending general elections. And in this context it is important to note that Benazir today and Hasina since yesterday have been taking a wholesome stand towards India, reflecting the positive urges of the democratic forces in their respective countries.

The need today is to strive for a foreign policy based on solid appraisal of the forces at work in our region, their credibility and durability, and the possibility of our interaction with them. Not impulse but experience, not gimmickry but statesmanship, can provide the solid foundation of an enduring foreign policy.

In this context, it is significant that the Prime Minister has now set up a high-powered Policy Planning Committee encompassing Foreign Affairs, Defence and Internal Security. It is only to be hoped that through this body, our foreign policy projections will be based on a realistic appraisal of the balance of forces in our region and of the possibilities of their interaction. n
([Published in Mainstream May 3, 1986 as a slightly enlarged version of a contribution by N.C. in The Times of India (April 27, 1986)]

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