In Bangladesh, opposition leader Khaleda Zia has been sentenced to five years in jail for corruption. In Sri Lanka, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party scored a big victory in local elections. In Nepal, K.P. Oli – who has a difficult history with India – has returned as prime minister. In the Maldives, a state of emergency has been declared by an embattled president Abdulla Yameen. In Bhutan, local elections are around the corner, amid calls from some politicians to decrease the country’s dependence on India.
The Indian press – print, television, and online – has noted these developments and adopted a familiar refrain: India is losing the neighbourhood. It feeds a well-worn narrative, in which China is ascendant and India is surrounded, isolated, and helpless. But if one were to step back just a little, look at longer trends and the stark realities of India’s relationships with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives, the picture looks rather different.
The political, economic, and military interdependence between India and its smaller neighbours (not counting Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Myanmar) is far too great, and is in fact deepening. India can certainly do a better job in building consent, trust, and goodwill with these countries. But reports of India’s demise as a regional power are greatly exaggerated.
There are four important points to consider in assessing India’s relations with these neighbours.
One, all are steadily democratising in practice or in spirit, although at different rates and with occasional setbacks. In the long term, this is a positive development. In the short run, this presents new kinds of challenges. Although the King retains significant powers, Bhutan has begun its evolution into a constitutional monarchy. Nepal has gone farther, becoming a republic. Bangladesh has transitioned away from years of military dictatorship to democratic rule, however flawed. And the Maldives had its first glimmer of democracy before Yameen established his stranglehold on power. Even Sri Lanka, which has a longer democratic tradition than the others, managed to end its civil war and a period of politics marked by regular assassinations of opposition leaders. Today, there are new, dissenting voices in all these states.
Two, identity politics is on the rise everywhere. It is only natural, given India’s size and the fact that ethnicities traverse borders, that India would be dragged into the identity politics of its smaller neighbours. Thus, certain political forces in each of the neighbours find utility in anti-India rhetoric and actions, while their political opponents often seek advantage in closer ties with India. Minority groups and dissidents often seek Indian assistance, as recent events in the Maldives have shown. Nationalism and anti-Indianism have been constants over the past seventy years, although the factions have changed over time and the fault lines have sharpened.
Three, many Indian commentators ignore the fact that as sovereign states, these countries have agency, and make decisions in their own self-interest. At times, these choices – whether political or policy – align with Indian preferences. At other times, they do not. India’s ability to determine outcomes, especially political outcomes, will therefore always be limited. Intervention of any kind could easily prove counterproductive. Indeed, some of the same voices in India who lament Indian inaction are just as likely to criticise Indian intervention for being overbearing, hegemonic, and reckless.
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