By Taryana Odayar
“Divisions and the spread of nationalism in South Asia represent other dangers for the future and should be diverted by cooperation between countries at many levels, for example in civil societies, as well in diverse international organizations, such as the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation.”
– Francesco Brunello Zanitti.
The 16th of May 2014 proved to be a significant day for the Republic of India as Narendra Modi, fondly referred to as “NaMo” by his polity, and the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who won a sensational victory over the long-ruling Indian National Congress Party. Notably, over 550 million votes were cast over a five week election cycle, in the world’s largest democratic election. Furthermore, in the run up to the election, the BJP made history by becoming the first political party to achieve a majority number of seats in the Lok Sabha or lower house of Parliament, in arguably the most decisive election win in the past 30 years of Indian electoral history.
With such a precedent, analysts are now desperately searching for clues in India’s foreign policy, especially in relation to the SAARC countries. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was first established in 1985, and as of 2014 comprises 8 South Asian member states, namely India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Bangladesh. Being a strong advocate of economic integration, will Modi seek to strengthen the economic trade that exists between India and its South Asian neighbours? And are there political gains to be won through this increased regional prosperity? And, most importantly, will these gains act as a catalyst that could potentially cause an unprecedented, geopolitical power shift towards South Asia? For a long time, international relations theorists have debated on the pros and cons of the four power systems; namely the unipolar system wherein power is concentrated in the hands of one nation which in turn influences the others, a bipolar system and tripolar system where power is shared between two and three nations respectively, and a multipolar system where power is equally distributed between all autonomous nations. Dr. Suresh Prabha, an Advisor to the Modi Government, believes that Modi’s appointment and actions to unite regional groups such as SAARC and BRICS could set into motion a chain reaction leading to the formation of a new multipolar world order,
“We (India) do not believe that there should be a unipolar or bipolar world. We believe in a multipolar world. We strongly believe that just as we practice multiparty democracy in country, there should be different opinions in the world. So there should be a multipolar world. If there is a multipolar world, there is little space for one country to dominate, whether it is the United States, Russia or China. It should be a world in which all should have their representation. So BRICS is a good development. It comprises five major economies which represent almost half of the world’s population in five different regions of the world. We should also welcome and allow similar multipolar groupings.”
Is this the beginning of a new era in geopolitics? The era of a multipolar world? If this power shift is in fact taking place, the proactive measures being taken by India under the Modi regime may be a serious catalytic factor in this, as the country is a strong advocate of the devolution of power away from the traditional powerhouses such as USA, Russia and China, and towards regional blocs such as SAARC and BRICS. Undoubtedly, India will continue to support regional integration and cooperation as the devolution of power to regions will in turn open the door for nations within these regions to come to the power-wielding forefront one by one. Hence, the regional devolution of power, which is the undercurrent of Modi’s foreign policy strategy, will be the stepping stone to achieving a multipolar world order.
Therefore, in order to gauge the feasibility of this, one must first look at the existing relations between India and the other SAARC nations, and the possible course of action Modi could take to set all of the above in motion, thereby reshaping the way we perceive South Asia, and the world. The following is therefore a special report on this matter.
Afghanistan; Modi’s Opening Gambit
“Asia is a body of water and clay,
Of which the Afghan nation forms the heart.
The whole of Asia is corrupt,
If the heart is corrupt,
Its decline is the decline of Asia
Its rise is the rise of Asia.”
These lines were first penned in the 1930s, in a poem written by Allamah Muhammad Iqbal, a politician cum poet who eloquently equated Afghanistan to being the pulsing heart of the Asian continent. Yet little did he know at the time how politically correct he was. Decades later, in the 21st century, foreign policy analysts in India have only just started to scratch the surface on the crucial role Afghanistan will play in securing stability in the South Asian region and curbing terrorist uprisings.
Now, more than ever before, India needs Afghanistan’s support in quelling terrorist activities before they spill over onto Indian soil. Case in point, on May 23rd this year, four gunmen from the Lakshar e-Toiba militant outfit were taken out during their attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, by the Indo-Tibetan border police and Afghan security. Immediately following the attack, Modi spoke to the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and thanked him for the services of the Afghan security that helped to thwart the attack. If Modi wants the full support of the Afghan forces in protecting his people and country in this same way, he needs to quickly establish closer and long-lasting ties with the current, newly elected Afghan administration under President Ashraf Ghani. In order for this to happen, first a strong bond has to be formed between the governments of these countries, as Modi will have to kindle the same amicable relationship with Ashraf Ghani that he had with former President Karzai.
However, just as it is in India’s interests to work closely with the Afghan government, especially on issues like terrorism, it is also in Afghanistan’s best interests to consciously strive to solidify its ties with India further, as the departure of the NATO-led coalition forces from the country by 2016 will leave a significant security void that the new President will be responsible for closing, so as to prevent the Taliban or Al-Qaeda regrouping and resurrecting themselves. Or, even worse, overthrowing the government and ending the fledgling democracy that is just beginning to establish itself in the country. For these reasons, Afghanistan should be seeking closer military and political ties with its Indian neighbour in the near future. For the moment however, both countries seem to be playing their cards right, according to Francesco Brunello Zanitti, Scientific Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (IsAG) in Rome, who says that, “New Delhi, according to the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership, has already agreed to assist Afghan National Security Forces in formation and equipment programs.”
However, Modi must also keep in mind that he will be toeing a fine line between establishing an Indian presence in Afghanistan without causing pandemonium in Pakistan, which is geographically squashed between India and Afghanistan, and fears a growing Indian military and political presence in the latter. In order for Modi to toe this line, Omar Samad, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC, believes that Modi will have to soften some of the action-oriented and explosive views he expressed regarding external threats to India as well as his plans for an extensive military upgrade, “What we do know is that his (Modi’s) rhetoric during campaign was viewed as somewhat strong vis-à-vis terrorism and any external threat to India.” He goes on to say that, “But at the same time, he balanced it with a moderate view in terms of economic cooperation and expanded relations with the region.” Therefore, Modi needs to maintain a balance between a strong stand against external threats to India via improved military progress, whilst also soothing neighbouring countries such as Pakistan with promises of security and economic prosperity, and he needs to make these clear in his future action plans and foreign policy targets.
Alternately, Pakistani expert, Mansoor Ijaz, feels that there is another route open to Modi that may prove more effective. This would involve India firstly improving relations with Pakistan, before even thinking of garnering more meaningful ties with Afghanistan; a process Ijaz believes could already be underway, “Basically, he (Modi) will try to change the equation with Pakistan, and if he has better relations with Pakistan, then he can safely increase his presence in Afghanistan on the development side, if he can assure Pakistanis that Pakistan is not being sandwiched between Afghanistan and India.”
Ironically, Modi, who has never held a position in the Lok Sabha, and has virtually no national-level political experience, is being called upon to implement a course of action which is in India’s best interests and which may act as a catalyst for obtaining stability in the South Asian region once and for all. In making this most crucial geopolitical gamble, we can expect that the inexperienced Prime Minister Modi will be keen to listen to the advice extended to him by the learned diplomats in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Modi should be mindful however that the clock is ticking, and before he knows it 2016 will be just round the corner, leaving no room for hesitation or pussy-footing. Additionally, it would be wise for Modi to rally the Russians and the Iranians to work with his government in acting as watchdogs to prevent terrorism taking root once again in Afghanistan, as both Russia and Iran have much to lose should the Taliban come to power. Furthermore, by seeking to work together with China to combat a terror threat from their Afghan neighbour, Modi could potentially mend the rifts in the fabric of Sino-Indian relations, which has been fraying due to overt rivalry between the two, who have been clamouring to obtain greater political and economic punch in the region.
Modi’s next decisions regarding Afghanistan will be watched by political analysts closely; to see whether India’s open-heart surgery on Afghanistan will lead to the “decline of Asia” or the “rise of Asia.”
Sri Lanka Grapples with India
“I want you to think of the future of Ceylon in the larger context of changing Asia. Neither India nor Ceylon can be in isolation today, but should think in terms of the big movements taking place in Asia and the rest of the world. The problem before India and Ceylon today is to bring about the economic advance of the masses of people and at the same time, maintain the democratic structure of society.”
– Former Indian PM, Jawaharlal Nehru.
India and Sri Lanka have had a long and multifaceted foreign relations record, due largely to their close geographical proximity to each other as well as their shared religious practices and cultural norms. Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that, “…it seems to me quite inevitable and right that there should be the closest relationship and cooperation between India and Lanka. Geography compels it. Our history and common culture make it inevitable. So I feel that neither India nor Lanka should take any step which comes in the way of impairing the cordial and fruitful relations.”
Yet sharing the Indian Ocean as well as certain societal values does not necessarily equate a squeaky-clean foreign relations record. Hence, whilst Modi’s appointment ushers in new era of Indian politics, it may renew discussions on some of the issues that Sri Lanka and India have not been able to see eye-to-eye on.
At Modi’s Cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony, which the Heads of State of India’s immediate South Asian neighbours were invited to, he is reported to have spoken strongly to President Rajapakse about the necessity of implementing the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution in full, which, besides making both Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the country, with English as the link language, also more importantly calls for the creation of Provincial Councils and the greater devolution of power to Tamil-majority regions. Dr. Suresh Prabhu, an advisor to Modi’s government, echoed Modi’s sentiments when he compared India to Sri Lanka, saying that “The Indian Constitution’s 73rd and 74th amendments give powers to the state governments,” and that it is “good for any government to have regional aspirations” like these. Having recently emerged from the throes of a bitter ethnic conflict between the LTTE and the GOSL, the last thing the Sri Lankan government wants is to risk yet another uprising lest the provincial councils with their heightened political powers and their own police forces choose to take action. Call it paranoia if you will, but right now the GOSL is simply not willing to let anything jeopardize the current term of peace and economic stability; not even the democratic devolution of power to the Provincial Councils.
But this inflexible request from across the Palk Strait to implement the Thirteenth Amendment isn’t something new. For years, the Congress Government of India has insisted on the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, even going so far as to make it the crux of their Indo-Sri Lanka foreign policy. So does Modi too have his marching orders from Tamil Nadu and the Indian Tamil population to take this same hard and fast approach? It wouldn’t be surprising if this same line of strategy is normalized by the BJP for two main reasons. Firstly, it is important to note that the governments of India over the years have built up a reputation of consistency in maintaining similar foreign policies even once a new political party comes into power, making Sri Lanka synonymous with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment no matter the ruling party. Secondly, at the nucleus of the BJP’s foreign policy, are the twin traits of Economic Protectionism and Hindu Nationalism, which, when combined with Modi’s deeply ingrained Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology and his own brand of Hyper-Hindu Nationalism, results in a potent combination that increases the likelihood of the same if not even more aggressive insistence than the Congress Party had towards executing the Thirteenth Amendment in full. Hence, in theory, it seems likely that Modi will succumb to the hereditary ideologies of his political party.
Or is his mettle made of stronger stuff? The fact that he invited the Heads of State of neighbouring countries for his Cabinet’s swearing-in, is in itself a symbolic indication of his independence and control in moving India towards foreign policy goals that are more in line with national interests than provincial or sectarian ones. After all, let us not forget that Vaiko, the leader of the MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party which is active in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, went out of his way to oppose Modi’s act of extending an invitation to President Rajapakse. Another dominant characteristic Modi possesses is his inimitable reputation for being incredibly business-minded from the time he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. If he lives up to his title of ‘India’s economic strongman’ and the flattering Margaret Thatcher comparisons thrust on him, he may choose to soften his stance on the conundrum of the Thirteenth Amendment in favour of promoting greater political cohesion and thus economic integration between India and its South Asian neighbours. This in turn would aid his quest towards boosting India’s economic growth and making it an emergent trade and investments hub in the 21st century, whilst Sri Lanka would benefit from increased intra-regional trade, new investment opportunities, as well as more tourists from India.
At the moment, Narendra Modi is treading precariously on dangerous waters, where the slightest overstep of unspoken boundaries could cause the scales to tip. So which role will he choose to play? Will he be Sri Lanka and South Asia’s Economic Messiah? Or will he be yet another Puppet of Party Politics? Only time will tell.
“Acche din aa rahe hain” for Pakistan?
“There is fear in the international field…Pakistan is afraid of India. India is apprehensive of Pakistan. Everybody is afraid of everybody else. It may be that fear in one or the other is well founded. But I cannot understand this vicious circle of fear.”
– Former Indian PM, Jawaharlal Nehru.
India and Pakistan have a bloody civil history, having fought four wars with each other, three of which have been over the disputed ownership of the Kashmir region, which Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif refers to as the “jugular vein” of his country. Apart from these, is the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, wherein East Pakistan was fighting to break away from West Pakistan to form Bangladesh. During this time, the Indian government under Indira Ghandhi trained and organized the Mukti Bahini (Bangladeshi Resistance Army) in their struggle against West Pakistan, which proved victorious and hence left a sore memory in the minds of the West Pakistani government. The Indian government’s pro-active stance in the war stemmed from the seemingly endless influx of refugees from East Pakistan to India, which placed great strain on the Indian economy. Towards the end of the conflict however, India was antagonized by the actions of the West Pakistani Army which systematically hunted down and murdered Bengali citizens as part of a pogrom against the Hindu minority.
The entire ordeal left a bitter memory in the minds of the Pakistanis, who had to face the humiliating loss of half their population and significant economic revenue, thanks to the support extended by India to East Pakistan, and also had to face an unfavourable shift in the way their South Asian neighbours perceived them. This has resulted in embittered tensions between the two nations, both of which are also rival nuclear powers. Furthermore, many amongst Pakistan’s Muslim populous, who make up 96.4% of the total population (as of 2010), remain weary of Modi in his new position of power, as they see his Bharatiya Janata Party as a Hindu supremacist group with anti-Muslim tendencies. Over the years, Modi has tried, and succeeded to an extent, to dampen his image of a religious fanatic who for years was considered too divisive to be a serious contender for Prime Minister, in favour of that of an economic warrior determined to mould India into a progressive and thoroughly modern trade and investments hub. However, Pakistanis as well as the Muslim minority in India, the latter of which constitute approximately 15 percent of India’s swollen populous, have good reason to suspect and even fear Narendra Modi in his Prime Ministerial capacity. Indeed, in 1948, a former member of the RSS, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, was held responsible for the cold-blooded assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, who is to this day the most revered iconic persona in India. Godse believed that, “…Gandhiji, while advocating his views, always showed or evinced a bias for Muslims, prejudicial and detrimental to the Hindu Community and its interests.” It was this belief that Gandhi had favoured and upheld the Muslim community, which led Godse to shoot him thrice at point-blank range with a Beretta M 1934 semi-automatic pistol purchased solely for this purpose.
Furthermore, the RSS is infamously known for having led the 1992 riots that culminated in the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, and in 2002, Modi came under heavy criticism by the international press for his alleged complicity in the Gujarat riots that took the lives of over 1,000 civilians, mainly Muslims. He was accused of being at best too passive and at worst encouraging and even fuelling the riots. Indeed, some of his most ardent supporters were convicted of involvement in the violence and even jailed, and the police and government officials under Modi had allegedly distributed lists of Muslim-owned property to the rioters to be systematically looted and destroyed. Even renowned Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy, went so far as to label Modi’s BJP party, which is in actuality an offshoot of the RSS, as a “Hindu nationalist guild that has not been shy of admiring Hitler and his methods.” Many political commentators are verbose in their condemnation of Modi’s suspected involvement in the riots, equating this dark period in Gujarat’s history to an act of state terrorism by way of ethnic cleansing or genocide. The acclaimed Human Rights activist K. Balagopal, in “Reflections on ‘Gujarat Pradesh’ of ‘Hindu Rashtra,’” said the following of the massacre of Muslims during the riots,
“Forget about burning human beings and prancing gleefully around as the tortured flesh thrashes about. Forget also about cutting open a pregnant woman’s womb to burn the foetus. Such people are at least killing something alive. Can you imagine the state of mind that digs up an old grave, pours petrol on the presumed remains of a long dead Muslim and sets it aflame? The common Hindu’s hatred for anything to do with Muslims, an intense and inflamed hatred, is the only thing alive in Gujarat today.”
Although the Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court of India cleared Modi of complicity in the riots and later rejected a petition requesting Modi’s prosecution, the international community remained suspicious, with the United States of America even denying Modi his US visa in 2005 on the grounds of having violated religious freedoms. This was a sharp sting that Modi carred with him even during his election campaign, when he subconsciously alluded to it by saying, “I will make such a wonderful India that all Americans will stand in line to get a visa for India.” Moreoever, the threat to Pakistan has been made all the more real and threatening given the fact that India surpassed China in 2010 to become the world’s largest arms importer, with Modi increasing military expenditure and offering lucrative investment deals to foreign defence firms in an effort to beef up and modernise India’s military capabilities.
However, this increased spending can be justified, given the claims from India, China and Russia that Pakistan is fast becoming an elite breeding ground for divisive, high-level terror groups. Dr. Suresh Prabhu says that,
“We (India) have been saying for a long time that Pakistan’s soil is being used to launch attacks on India. Pakistan denied it but now Pakistan itself has launched a big campaign against terrorists. Pakistan’s prime minister is saying there are foreign terrorists on Pakistani soil. They are from Uzbekistan and other places. China also says now what India has been saying. China says that some of the terrorists that create trouble in China’s minority provinces are coming from Pakistan. Afghanistan also says the terrorists are coming from Pakistan. This is what Russia is also saying: Chechens are being supported from Pakistani soil. Forget other countries, Pakistan itself says the same thing and that is why its army has launched a big campaign against terrorists in Waziristan. So Pakistan and India are suffering from the same problem.”
Apart from investing in military hardware to fend off unwelcome intruders from Pakistan, Modi is also seeking a diplomatic solution. He invited the Heads of State to his inauguration, including the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in an unprecedented move that undoubtedly signals Modi’s desire for greater political and socio-economic cooperation as well as mutual trust. Proof of this stems from Modi’s very first major speech as a Prime-Ministerial candidate, wherein he says that, “Bombs, guns and pistols have failed to do any good for the people of Pakistan … if India or Pakistan has to fight a war, it should be a war on poverty, illiteracy and superstition”, thus underlining his yearning for the two countries to work with each other, rather than against each other. Even Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, has said that, “It is an irony that while globalisation has transformed the world, lifted million of people around the world from poverty, South Asia is stuck in an outdated and unhelpful narrative”, and that with the appointment of Modi, “acche din aa rahe hain” (good days are approaching) for Pakistan. Interestingly enough, the phrase “acche din aa rahe hain” was the same term Modi used in one of his electoral slogans, and the very fact that Basit would go so far as to reiterate this quote is a certain sign of the Pakistani diplomatic community’s approval of not only Modi’s phraseology, but his actions and plans thus far.
From an academic perspective, Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi, professor of International Relations at Peshawar University, is optimistic about the direction Indo-Pakistani relations seem to be taking, reminding us that, “The worst patches in Pakistan-India relations have come under the secular Congress party’s rule, while they have invariably improved when non-Congress governments came into power.” So perhaps the coming to power of the more unconventional BJP party will bring with it a welcome and much-needed foreign policy change.
Overall, Modi seems sincere about his spoken desire for better relations with Pakistan, and it is clear that he will work towards nurturing mutually beneficial economic ties between the two countries. But the real test will be that of Modi’s reaction if India is provoked on a sensitive issue such as the Kashmir region; especially if such a crisis led to a surge of nationalist sentiment. Only when such a scenario unfolds will political commentators know exactly how far Modi is willing to sacrifice his popularity votes for the sake of regional peace and economic gain.
Modinomics within Nepal
“Our relations with Nepal are as old as the Himalayas and the Ganga.”
– PM of India, Narendra Modi.
For 240 years, Nepal was the world’s only Hindu Monarchy. Then, in 2008, the monarchy was abolished in a historic vote by the constituent assembly, to make way for a secular, federal, democratic republic. However, there are many in India who believe that Modi’s prime ministerial win could trigger a revival of Hinduism in the country, and there are still in fact members of the BJP who feel nostalgic for the days of the Nepalese Hindu Monarchy. Furthermore, the RSS even has its own chapter in Nepal, called the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS). However, it is important to note that in the BJP’s Election Manifesto for 2014, it states that, “BJP believes that political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential for south Asia’s growth and development. The Congress-led UPA has failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold.” This strongly implies that Modi will strive to increase interactions with Kathmandu and will put national interests ahead of Hindu nationalism by not interfering in Nepal’s democratic transition. Confirming this, Modi delivered a speech to the Constituent assembly of Nepal this year, declaring his intent of non-interference,
“We have always believed that it is not our work to interfere in what you do but to support you in the path you decide to take. Our only wish is that Nepal’s progress reaches as high as the Himalayas. Being your neighbour and seeing our experience as a democracy, we feel happy at the direction in which you are going.”
After all, as civil rights activist and US Presidential candidate Wendell L.Willkie said, “Political internationalism without economic internationalism is a house built upon sand. For no nation can reach its fullest development alone.”
Case in point, the Third Nepal-India joint commission meeting has been scheduled for the 26th and 27th of July, 2014 in Kathmandu, Nepal, ahead of the SAARC summit to be held there in Novermber. Nihar Nayak, an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), says that, “This would be a historical visit, because Prime Minister of India will be visiting after 17 years. Former Prime Minister of India, I.K. Gujral visited in 1997, and since then, there has not been a senior-level or high-level political visit between two countries. The political leaders of Nepal have been demanding that high-level political meeting should be revived.”
Furthermore, economic analysts have speculated that the meeting could bring about an important Hydro-power agreement between the two countries, and the Ambassador of India to Nepal, Shri Ranjit Rae, is reported to have been quoted in a statement issued by Nepal’s Finance Ministry, saying, “India is likely to announce a huge economic package during the proposed visit of Modi” In fact, Nepal has huge hydro-power potential, being the second richest country in terms of inland water resources, boasting of 6,000 rivers and streams, as well as multiple water sources such as snowmelt from the Himalayas and glaciers. Additionally, the Nepalese finance ministry has also said that Indian companies such as GMR Consortium and Sutlej Jalavidyut Nigam are willing to take the lead if such an agreement comes about.
All these industrial developments, which have been given Modi’s blessings and approval, stand testament to Modi’s own enterprising nature, which he iterated again and again during his election campaign. It appears that Modi is indeed acting on his promises to the people of India, of more intra-regional trade and investment. John Cassidy affirms this, writing in ‘The New Yorker’ that,
“Scornful of the highly educated Anglophile élite in New Delhi, which has dominated India since it gained independence, in 1947, he (Modi) cultivated business leaders, such as Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, and, during the national election campaign, he appealed to younger Indians—half of the population is under the age of twenty-six—who aspire to Western-style consumerism. In broad terms, his campaign message was very similar to the one Mrs. T. (Thatcher) peddled thirty-five years ago: the old way of doing things is holding us back, so let’s sweep much of it away and unleash enterprise.”
Therefore, Nepal must work together with India to achieve greater economic prosperity through potential investment and trade agreements, in addition to playing a heightened political role as one of India’s key allies in the region.
“Bharat to Bhutan”
“Rang chapi zam lay rang ma thai” (One cannot cross a bridge constructed by oneself).
– Bhutanese Proverb.
The fact that Narendra Modi chose Bhutan as his first port of call as Prime Minister, is no surprise. Commenting on this, Dr. Suresh Prabhu says that, “His (Modi’s) first foreign visit was not to the US, China or Japan, but to Bhutan, a tiny country with less than one million people…And that means he believes that size does not matter and that economic potential of a country is not what influences us but our relationship with that country.”
However, there is more to this than what meets the eye. The Indian contingency under Modi have for some time cast a disapproving eye towards China’s attempts at romancing Bhutan and becoming exceedingly friendly with the Bhutanese leadership, hence exerting their influence and dominance in the region. The Chinese have already left their mark in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan where they have built ports and other infrastructure. Thus, during his visit, Narendra Modi grandly declared his desire to strengthen bilateral ties between India and Bhutan, going so far as to coin the phrase “B2B”, which stands for, “Bharat to Bhutan”, wherein “Bharat” refers to India.
Clearly, Bhutan will play a key role in re-shaping India’s foreign policy, as Modi focuses his attention and efforts on his immediate neighbours in the region. In order to solidify his intentions, he even inaugurated Bhutan’s Supreme Court building that was built with assistance from India, and laid the foundation stone of the Bhutanese Kholongchu Hydro-electric project; a joint enterprise between the two countries. He also announced that he would be doubling the number of scholarships given to Bhutanese students in India, and proposed the establishment of an e-library which would provide Bhutanese youth with access to an estimated 2 million academic books and journals. This is a perfect example of the catchy campaign rhetoric Modi used regarding IT development, such as “IT+IT=IT; Indian Talent + Information Technology = India Tomorrow”, being put into action.
So far, Bhutan has viewed India as their strongest ally on the international stage, and as such have allowed themselves to become reliant on big brother India for much of their economic trade links and development partnerships. For instance, Bhutan happens to be India’s main export partner, with hydropower-generated electricity to India being their largest export. Furthermore, the Bhutanese currency, the ngultrum, is exchangeable only with the Indian Rupee, to which it has been pegged since 1974, and which has made trading and investing between the two countries much easier as the problem of daily fluctuations was eliminated.
During Modi’s first two-day trip in Bhutan, he met King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, and addressed the Bhutanese parliament. A feature of these talks was India’s willingness to aid Bhutan on its way to becoming a Hydropower giant in South Asia. It is quite obvious that Modi is very keen to develop the Hydropower infrastructure in Bhutan for the simple fact that India happens to be Bhutan’s main export partner, with the main export being hydropower-generated electricity from Bhutan. India is in dire need of an increased steady flow of energy in lieu of rising energy demands in the country as well as to revive its flagging economic growth. For Bhutan, this rising demand and offers of financial assistance is more than welcome, as it heralds more long-term economic revenue for the tiny, isolated nation.
Bangladesh; Friend or Foe?
“There are cultural issues everywhere – in Bangladesh, Latin America, Africa, wherever you go. But somehow when we talk about cultural differences, we magnify those differences.”
– Muhammad Yunus.
Bangladesh and India have had greatly favourable relations for the most part, since the War of Liberation between Bangladesh and Pakistan wherein India extended their full support to Bangladesh in their independence struggle. However, in recent times these cordial relations seem to have deteriorated due to immigration, corporate and border issues. According to the Dhaka Tribune,
“As it is, regular shooting and killing of Bangladeshi civilians by the Border Security Force, the failure in reaching an accord on the sharing of water from the Teesta River, the failure in ratification of the long-pending land boundary agreement, hindrance in Bangladeshi companies accessing Indian markets have all contributed in eroding the considerable goodwill that India had earned amongst Bangladeshis for rendering invaluable support during the War of Liberation against Pakistan.”
In addition to these grievances, is the more delicate issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh to India which Modi has handled in a decidedly heavy-handed manner. His biggest mistake was stating during an election rally in Assam that he would expel all illegal Bangladeshi settlers from India, which as of late largely consist of Muslims seeking to escape poverty, but would welcome any Hindus fleeing from religious persecution. This was quickly interpreted as a worrisome sign by political commentators, of Modi’s impending anti-Islamic foreign policy stand. According to Muchael Kugelman, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, Modi’s overt vocalization of his intentions to openly discriminate between illegal Muslim and Hindu immigrants is a “big political gamble.”He added that, “In effect, by supporting illegal Hindu immigrants, Modi would explicitly be showcasing his Hindu nationalist bona fides.”
This is a similar situation to that which occurred between India and Sri Lanka which climaxed in 1948, wherein India pressured Sri Lanka to accept Indian Tamil immigrants and grant them citizenship. In fact, at Sri Lanka’s Independence celebrations in February of the same year, a British Cabinet Delegation representing London noted the following in their report to His Majesty’s Government;
“In part Ceylon fears economic and social pressures by Tamil immigration. This underlines the problem of Ceylon citizenship. India wants all the immigrant Tamils from Madras to be full Ceylon citizens: there are some 800, 000 of them and they are liable to increase. Ceylon wants to limit the number of these Tamil citizens to about 400, 000.”
The shoe is now on the other foot for India, as they are now unwilling to accept Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh in the same way Sri Lanka was unwilling to grant full citizenship for Tamils who were migrating from Madras, Tamil Nadu and other areas of India.
At a press conference in Tokyo, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that during her tenure she has dealt with four different Indian governments, with Modi’s being the fifth one, and that she is confident that any standing bilateral issues can be resolved through discussion and negotiation, “Our foreign policy is very clear – friendship to all, and malice to none.” These bilateral talks could indeed be the turning point which decides whether illegal, non-Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants will be allowed to stay in India, or whether they will face deportation from India and then statelessness if Bangladesh refuses to accept their status as deportees.
Therefore, Narendra Modi finds himself in the throes of a complex chess game, between himself and the Bangladeshi administration, wherein the pawns are the illegal immigrants. Currently, Modi is desperately trying to send his pawns to the other side of the board, across to Bangladesh, whereas the opposing player is setting up a strategic defence to prevent this happening. Eventually, the end-game will come down to whoever has the least number of pawns standing on his end of the chess board.
The Maldivian Dilemma
“Historically, the Maldives have had regular contact with the outside world: they feature in South Asian folklore; they are mentioned by outside travelers and writers like Ptolemy, Alberuni, and Ibn-Batuta; Islam found its way to the Maldives as had Buddhism before it; and the migration of Indians, Sri Lankans, Southeast Asians, Arabs, and Persians created the Maldivian nation.”
– South Asia in World Politics, Ed. Devin T. Hagerty.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom for bilateral talks on the 27th of May this year, just the day after Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. The two leaders are reported to have discussed the importance of not allowing their respective territories to be used by any third party in a way that could be detrimental to the other, as well as means of strengthening trade and investment partnerships and furthering the education and tourism sectors of the Maldives. As far as the latter is concerned, under Modi’s tenure, 74 scholarships have in fact been awarded to Maldivian students who wish to pursue their higher education in Indian institutions, and in terms of tourism, Modi has agreed to instigate initiatives to encourage citizens in Indian states like Kerala and Gujarat to travel to the Maldives, thus boosting the Maldivian tourism economy.
However, there is a more significant factor behind all these well-seeming intentions by Modi’s India to nurture ties between it and the Maldive Islands, and that is the creeping influence of China which is slowly stealing Maldives away from its Indian sphere of influence. After all, the regional integration of South Asia will be impossible if the Maldives or any other state in the region is steered away from the region’s power centre and unifying state, India, and towards an already established national power, China, which the Modi administration is acutely aware of. According to ‘The Economist’ magazine,
“India sees evidence of the rising clout of its great rival, China. The new Chinese embassy, ten storeys high, is one of the largest buildings in the city (Malé). It happens to be next door to the offices of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM, led by the half-brother of Mr Gayoom). China’s economic heft is growing. A quarter of the nearly 1m tourists to arrive last year were Chinese.”
Undoubtedly, the Indians view this Chinese dream of growing influence and power in the region, as their own personal nightmare. In addition to this threat of the Chinese winning over India’s neighbours, is the growing concern of Islamist extremism and potentially terrorism in the Maldives, which could spill over to Indian soil, threatening their security. Islam was first introduced in the Maldives in the 12th century, and has been moderate for the most part, until the last decade wherein its has become considerably more conservative in tone. Many analysts attribute this growing religious conservatism which has morphed into radicalism in some segments of Maldivian society, especially amongst the youth, to the political reforms put in place in 2008, as well as the establishment of a multi-party democracy, both of which have given both conservatives and radicals a platform to express their views, such as the Adhaalath Party which is pushing for the implementation of sharia punishments in the penal code.
A few years later, in November 2011, there was an international incident during the annual summit meeting of the SAARC, wherein Islamic protesters went out of their way to vandalize a Pakistani monument gifted to the Maldives, which they felt was insulting because they felt they were idolatrous and hence anti-Islam. Hence, Modi would be wise to keep a sharp eye on the developments in the Maldive islands whilst supporting the Maldivian government under the leadership of Abdulla Yameen, in curbing terrorism and thereby ensuring stability in the region.
SAARC; a Model for Regional Devolution?
As depicted above, Narendra Modi has already begun working closely with India’s neighbouring governments in order to establish mutually beneficial relationships, as well as mutual trust. This will prove critical given the current politico-economic climate which is tilting towards more diverse dissipation in the concentration of power. If SAARC is able to build itself as a regional bloc that is strong not only in its inter-governmental relationships, but also economically and socially, this would prove the first step towards winning prominence and political punch on the world stage. And, should this come to pass, thereby fulfilling Modi’s administration’s efforts to achieve regional unity and prosperity for South Asia, SAARC will in turn influence other power players in regional blocs such as BRICS and ASEAN to rise to the plate and follow in its footsteps.
In this way, SAARC could act as a model for the regional devolution of power, and thus distort the current unipolar power system that the USA has established since the Cold War. If so, this would be the first time in human civilization wherein the centre of power has not followed a unipolar system, bipolar or tripolar system, all of which have been enacted in international relations in the past. For instance, pre-Cold War we saw the existence of bipolarity with the USSR and USA vying for dominance, then post-Cold War we witnessed the rise of the unipolar world with the United States of America bullishly forging ahead following the disintegration of the USSR, and recently a tripolar system comprising of USA, together with China; an economic power, and Russia; a regional and oil power. Emerging countries are now taking centre-stage however, namely Russia, China, Japan and the EU, and this, together “With the U.S. in relative decline since the turn of the millennium” means that “the world is now changing towards a greater consolidation of a multipolar system, with the power of the unipole (USA) being dissipated gradually over time amidst the rise of emerging powers.”
But how likely is the rise of SAARC and Asia as a whole? And how feasible is it to assume that its ascendance to power will bring about a wave of regional devolution that will result in the rise of a multipolar world? The answer lies in the fault lines in geopolitics wrought by the 2008 financial crisis, wherein,
“…the inability of the major powers of the eurozone and the U.S. to (completely) overcome the crisis in the foreseeable future means that global economic power is being shifted to Asia and other emerging economies around the world, much quicker than we originally thought at the turn of the millennium. No one is immune to the effects of the eurozone crisis, but it would seem that Asia and the emerging economies are likely to weather better than others because of the greater ability of their macroeconomic systems to cope, being based on export drives, private savings, and the accumulation of foreign currency reserves.”
Hence, this could bring about the Butterfly Effect, wherein the proverbial butterfly which flutters its wings on one continent, causes a hurricane on another continent, only in this case the financial crisis in Europe, could cause amplified politico-economic power in Asia, giving Asia a comparative advantage over the traditional centres of power. This seriously questions the durability of the current power system with the unipole USA. From this perspective, it only seems a matter of time before the current system comes to an end, and a new world order comes to pass, as “Only the uneven growth of power will bring the unipolar era to an end.”
A New World Order
Whilst it is inevitable that a new World Order is looming on the horizon, this begs the question; What held back countries like France and Great Britain from capitalizing on the fall of the USSR after the Cold War, by making use of the opportunity to strive to achieve unipolarity for themselves? Why didnt they compete with the USA for dominance in the international community? John Ikenberry, in “Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Order”, believes this is due to “the United States agree(ing) to operate within an institutionalized political process and, in return, its partners agree(ing) to be willing participants.”
However, there is growing distrust in the international community of the USA, especially in terms of how far it will go to achieve its national ambitions. This is affirmed by Kenneth Waltz in “Structural Realism after the Cold War”, wherein he argues that “unbalanced power leaves weaker states feeling uneasy and gives them reason to strengthen their positions.” The USA has already had a spot of indiscipline by impinging on the national sovereignty of countries like Afghanistan, and being hyperactive in its interference in the affairs of other countries, like during Crimea’s secession to Russia. As such, Waltz’s statement holds true when he says that, “the American aspiration to freeze historical development by working to keep the world unipolar is doomed…Multipolarity is developing before our eyes.” Indeed, the current unipolarity in international relations will not last forever, and so the only question remaining is, when will it end.”