Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina begins with the famous sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Indian subcontinent is somewhat like this. A collection of unhappy neighbours – unhappy with each other and unhappy among themselves.
Nepal is troubled but may return from the edge as it experiments with democracy, Bangladesh remains sullen, violence prone and increasingly radicalised, Myanmar is aloof and distant but showing some signs of thaw, Sri Lanka is troubled and helpless unable to come to terms with its minority and Pakistan continues to be inimical and increasingly radicalised. Our largest neighbour, China, is powerful, aggressive and ambitious. Further away, in the extended neighbourhood, to our west, Iran is becoming regionally powerful and strategically important for India and Afghanistan, at war with itself, is slipping away into perpetual chaos.
The Indian subcontinent is somewhat like this. A collection of unhappy neighbours ““ unhappy with each other and unhappy among themselves.
The South Asian region holds the largest concentration of the world’s poor, all its religions are represented here, but also has the largest concentration of Muslims. In today’s context of events in the neighbourhood, a general anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, given the behaviour pattern of some of our neighbours in using terrorism as a tool of foreign policy or as a force equaliser and a sense of rising expectations in an economically resurgent India, disequilibria of various kinds could occur. Handling these could be India’s major challenge.
India cannot help its size and has to live with the title of a regional hegemon or even a bully. We are at times accused of being arrogant and intrusive or on other occasions of being haughty and indifferent. It is an imperfect world.
An economically resurgent India is now an accepted reality, only the pace and range can change. It is legitimate to wonder what the consequences could be for India’s neighbours. There has been unequal economic and political development all over Southern Asia, including Iran and Afghanistan. Therefore, it is politically and economically heterogeneous and varied. India’s rise is not a threat to her neighbours but can have positive consequences depending upon how leaders of these countries view this – as a threat or as an opportunity.
An economically resurgent India is now an accepted reality, only the pace and range can change. It is legitimate to wonder what the consequences could be for Indias neighbours.
Even before the current Indian reforms kicked in a big way, Bhutan had shown the way. India financed and built the Chukha hydel power plant and India now buys electricity from Bhutan. As a result, the per capita income of the Bhutanese is higher that the Indians living across the border.
Nepal could easily opt for a similar project for its rivers that flow into India but refuses to do so and the rivers run through their course without adding any value to Nepal’s economy except for minor irrigation and it earns nothing from India. Like other smaller countries it has often played the “China Card” while dealing with India. And China has played the Nepal card in dealing with India.
Bangladesh shows similar reluctance and prefers to keep its people unemployed and poor rather than cooperate with India in spheres of sharing the gas, transit rights and so on. Perhaps if it did not have the option of letting its people illegally migrate to India it may have been more cooperative and looked less at distant shores for support. A Bangladesh-Myanmar tie up to supply gas to China in preference to India has been made possible because of Chinese money power and its closeness to Myanmar.
India cannot remain solely dependent on sources like Saudi Arabia who have used their petro-dollars to fuel insurgencies in the region. Indias dependency on Iran will increase with passage of time.
After years of isolation under the military regime of Ne Win, Myanmar had emerged from this in a rather dramatic way in 1988. India had at that time missed an opportunity to get a toe-hold in this neighbour and let China take the lead. China had moved into the vacuum post-1988 and since then it has been an uphill climb for India. China is today Myanmar’s main weapons and military supplier and the close economic ties provide China with a strategic access to the Bay of Bengal. However, the Mekong Ganga Cooperation initiative of six countries – India and Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam for cooperation in tourism, telecommunications education and culture are important beginnings. The BIMSTEC agreement where Myanmar became a member in 1997 could bring Myanmar and India closer through regional frameworks.
Iran is an important component in India’s economic rise. As the economy gathers further momentum the demands for energy will increase in an energy deficient country. Iran is strategically important for India not only for the energy supplies that it has but also as it provides access for Indian trade with Central Asia denied to us by a recalcitrant Pakistan. Iraq used to be a major supplier of oil but no longer. Besides, India cannot remain solely dependent on sources like Saudi Arabia who have used their petro-dollars to fuel insurgencies in the region. India’s dependency on Iran will increase with passage of time.