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Sunday June 4, 12:37 PM

Wanted: A New Indira Doctrine

By Sreeram Chaulia

Former prime minister Indira Gandhi's main contribution to India's foreign policy was geographic concretisation of where the national interests lay. While Jawaharlal Nehru visualised India as a conflict resolver and leader of developing countries at large, Indira Gandhi devised her own Monroe Doctrine by narrowing the intended sphere of influence to the South Asian region. India's goal was to remain the unchallenged regional hegemon in South Asia, with wider world problems taking rhetorical priority.

The Indira Doctrine was based on the realist assumption that influence can be exerted only when it is backed by material power capabilities. With the economic, military and technological poverty of India between the mid-60s and the mid-80s, to wish for a commanding presence beyond South Asia seemed pompous and naive, akin to a featherwieght category pugilist jumping into the super heavyweight ring.


Much water has flowed down the Ganges since Indira Gandhi's hard-nosed agenda for regional domination. The most significant transformation is that of the Indian economy, which outgrew the 'Hindu rate of growth' and has been galloping at an impressive pace since 1991. The second most significant change was India going open about its long-ambivalent nuclear weapons programme in 1998. As is natural, with accretion of material sinews, India today has a geographically much broader range of interests that stretch from the 'Look East' orientation to the end of the Western Hemisphere where a minuet is unfolding with the US.


Strangely, as an 'emerging power', India's refocusing on distant problems and partnerships coincides with an utter failure to preserve its stakes in the South Asian neighbourhood. The ever-rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and Bangladesh has increased Indian vulnerability in the security realm. If one compares the intensity and regularity of terrorist attacks on soft and hard targets in today's India with that in Indira Gandhi's time, the level of insecurity Indian citizens face now is far worse. The chances of one becoming a victim of a terrorist bombing or suicide attack anywhere and at any time are much higher now than in the days when political violence had a localised ambit in separatist provinces of India.


Indira Gandhi's way of ensuring security for Indian citizens was more robust because of her concentration on weakening inimical neighbouring states and maintaining military and economic pressure on state sponsors of terror. Contrary to requirements and in a brazen dereliction of the state's responsibility to protect its citizens, recent Indian rulers have come up with defeatist policies like the so-called 'Gujral Doctrine' or defensive noseying around like containment of terrorism within Indian borders when the challenge is from across the borders. Negotiations with the hijackers of IC-814 and with the military dictatorship in Islamabad are two ends of the same spectrum of purposeless South Asia policy that forgets too much and achieves little.


The announcement by Myanmar's military junta that democracy-rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be detained for one more year is another distasteful outcome that reveals the bankruptcy of India's South Asia policy. Myanmar shares a border with India and is technically on the crossroads between South and Southeast Asia. Issues of justice and inequity inside Myanmar are directly tied to the long-term stability and security of India's northeast. Instead of sanctioning and shunning the repressive order in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and ensuring that a people-friendly regime takes root, India is partying with the generals who easily play off New Delhi and Beijing against each other. If turning a blind eye to the Myanmar people's movement is 'realism', how is it that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Naga and Bodo secessionists still find a safe haven in Myanmar territory?


India was caught napping by the recent turmoil in Nepal, generating impressions that it favoured the monarchy even when its foundations were shaking from popular agitation. India's track record of reactive ex-post adjustments indicates that it is unprepared for a future divorce between the bourgeois political parties that just stripped the Nepalese king of his armour and the Maoists who demand far more radical socio-economic redistribution than token electoral democracy.


Bhutan is a feudal aristocracy and among the least developed countries of the world. Its establishment depends on Indian largesse and military subsidies. India does not bother to utilise its unique leverage over Thimphu to bring about peaceful democratic change, despite knowing that anti-India insurgents will find it harder to get safe haven in the Himalayan kingdom if popular sovereignty is established there. Sensitivity to non-interference is no excuse for letting go opportunities of ensuring just orders in India's neighbourhood.


India is the only genuinely democratic and relatively inclusive polity in South Asia - a giant oasis in a desertified region where people's rights are being crushed by tyrannies like Pakistan, Myanmar and Bhutan and misguided democracies like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where syncretic nation-building has been held back by majoritarian chauvinism. Warts and all, India is the only entity in South Asia that has the legitimacy and means to promote positive change in its vicinity.


Sadly, the Indian toolbox for its neighbourhood is presently vision-free. For instance, to crush the LTTE in Sri Lanka or deter it from restarting the war, New Delhi discusses a possible mutual defence pact with the government in Colombo without securing any tangible guarantee for a just solution to the minority rights problem. The sore festers on. The Sri Lankan people lose and so does India in the long run.


Much that passes as 'realism' in India's South Asia policy is akin to shooting itself in the foot. A new Indira Doctrine, mutatis mutandis, is imperative for carving out a friendly and hassle-free neighbourhood that does not impede India's economic development. It will have to meet the expectations of millions reeling under authoritarian thumbs and also make terrorism a costly proposition for state sponsors. The new doctrine should be such that future Tibets are not written off while future Kashmirs are pre-empted.


(Sreeram Chaulia is a commentator on international affairs based in the US. The views expressed are his own. He can be contacted on [email protected])



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