Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 31, 2022
What is fuelling anti-India rhetoric in India’s neighbourhood despite the efforts made by the Indian government to allay such fears?
Reimagining India in the neighbourhood Even as External Affairs Minister (EAM) undertook successful visits to Maldives and Sri Lanka this week, there is a lingering discomfort in India’s strategic community over the continuing anti-India rhetoric in these two nations. The impact of the rhetoric is more pronounced because it has since subsided in Bangladesh and Nepal, where it used to be centred on in the past. Sri Lanka has had an anti-India constituency in the form of the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) since the mid-60s. This time round, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) under Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, has joined issue on some of the India-related projects. With an exception of the multi-million-dollar government-centric joint sector refurbishment of the disused oil tanks farms of Second World War vintage in eastern Trincomalee, the SJB has also complained about the opacity in the renewable energy projects in the Northern Province going to the Indian private sector major, Adani Group. According to social media posts in Sri Lanka, the uncharitable references to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this context has gone down well, locally. There could be avoidable embarrassment if and when the SJB comes to power and Sajith Premadasa, who missed the bus by a wide breadth to present-day incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa, becomes the President in elections that are not due for over two years from now. Or, will the SJB, in such circumstances, make good its criticism, thus adding to the increasing reluctance of overseas investors that the nation needs the most in the present circumstances, when they are more than reluctant to chip in.
The visitor inaugurated the India-funded Police Academy in Addu, where the two governments have also decided to open a consulate for the benefit of students, businessmen, and health tourists.
The case with the Maldives is even worse, where EAM Jaishankar created history of sorts. He became the first overseas VVIP to hold bilateral talks and meet with incumbent President, Ibrahim Solih, outside of capital Malé. Given the 20th century history of the south feeling and getting alienated before being re-integrated in the early 60s, the Maldivian government had organised all of Jaishankar’s functions in Addu City, where they had hosted the SAARC Summit in 2011. The visitor inaugurated the India-funded Police Academy in Addu, where the two governments have also decided to open a consulate for the benefit of students, businessmen, and health tourists. Yet, none of these bold initiatives, coming as they come after big-ticket Indian investments in physical and social infrastructure, including the longest sea-bridge in the country, seems to have deterred the Opposition PPM-PNC combine of former President Abdulla Yameen. If anything, the group’s voice has only become shriller and protests louder in recent weeks. However, from a general ‘India Out’ campaign that would have targeted thousands of Indian workers in the crucial tourism and attendant service sectors, and which legend they still wear on specially-produced T-shirts, the Yameen camp has since zeroed in on Indian military personnel, seeking to give the impression that they were all over the place, ready to take over Maldives, as if on cue. It’s the worst travesty of truth even by Maldivian standards. What is true of Maldives and Sri Lanka used to be so in the case of India’s north-eastern neighbours. Leaving aside Bhutan, India-baiting used to be a pronounced part of domestic politics in Bangladesh and Nepal. Even in Bhutan, which has remained an economic protectorate of India, both in formal and informal terms like Maldives, there were heartburns when New Delhi suspended kerosene and cooking gas supplies ahead of parliamentary polls in 2013, allegedly for political reasons.

Regime change

All these raise the question, ‘Why India, and why periodically?’. Some of it like the communist Opposition in Nepal and the left-leaning JVP may owe it to ideological reasons, even so post-Independence, India too used to be a socialist state. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ‘reforms with a human face’, the content of much of which the incumbent government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expanded to provide for an egalitarian society, should have been acceptable to the left parties in the neighbourhood. However, it’s not, indicating that there is more to it than meets the eye.
The Indian casualness may have owed to the belief that at the end of the day, the two governments were involved as institutions, going beyond parties and personalities.
Such India-baiting is instead rooted in domestic politics and priorities, where New Delhi too may have given the impression that it favoured one particular political dispensation over another without meaning it. The Indian casualness may have owed to the belief that at the end of the day, the two governments were involved as institutions, going beyond parties and personalities. Individuals do matter but only up to a point. Even if the ‘chemistry’ does not work between governmental leaders from neighbouring nations are not, governments continue to do business. Typical is the case of Sri Lanka, where present-day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa after losing the Presidency in 2015 elections, told a media interviewer how an Indian agency had worked with the West for a ‘regime-change’ in his country. That was after Prime Minister Modi, not long after assuming charge, had openly wished Rajapaksa well in the upcoming elections, that too from his podium speech at SAARC-2014 Summit in Kathmandu. However, not months later, Rajapaksa retracted the statement. Today, his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the President, and bilateral ties have blossomed as never before in the 21st century at the very least—if not ever since India became independent in August 1947, followed by Sri Lanka in February 1948.

A perception problem

The one possible reason for such a perception-problem may owe to the nature of politics in the neighbouring nations when compared to India. Post-Independence, Indian democracy has ensured that even while there is a change of political leadership at the helm, institutions are not affected as much. This is particularly the case with foreign policy. Even when India has had strong prime ministers like Narendra Modi now and Indira Gandhi in her time, or Rajiv Gandhi with the highest number of seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, the ‘steel-frame’ as the bureaucracy is still known, is mostly left untouched. It has also held its ground, mostly, in terms of policymaking and implementation. Given the complexities involved, a succession of political leadership has also played by the unwritten rules of the game, breaking which could lead to a complex situation that could take down the leadership with it. The political leaderships in India have also not tried to arrive at a homogeneity or a top-down model, which is the case with most, if not all neighbours. They could afford it also because of the belief that as small and near-homogenous nations, they could benefit from practising/ensuring homogeneity in administration.
Post-Independence, Indian democracy has ensured that even while there is a change of political leadership at the helm, institutions are not affected as much.
It’s a fallacy that they have not overcome and which instead have bogged them down. The example of Sri Lanka’s JVP militancy deriving legitimacy from the socio-economic disparities inherited from the colonial rulers, and also the ethnic issue, war and violence, are both products of such perceptions viewed from different angles. Post-Republic Nepal is still battling with the problem, and they too have not found all answers to all issues of internal disparities, which keep erupting, thankfully only in political terms, from time to time. Bangladesh has enjoyed a period of political peace and therefore relative prosperity over the past decade in particular. It is too early to predict how and how far would the pendulum swing in a world with Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, 74 at the helm. She has crushed her political Opposition, but has not unveiled a succession plan that also has to be seen as being democratic, going by the nation’s history. Yet, religious fundamentalists and mainline parties like rival Bangladesh National Party (BNP) identifying with the fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami, have not given up as yet. Both are anti-India, owing to their own perception that New Delhi is pro-Hasina. This is so despite the Indian government hosting BNP chairperson, Begum Khaleda Zia, the then Leader of the Opposition, in 2012. Months later in 2013, when Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka, she ended up cancelling her meeting with the him, citing the hartal called by her party and its Jamat ally, against the Hasina regime, to ‘protest against the mass-killings’. Incidentally, President Mukherjee had received Begum Khaleda in the Rashtrapati Bhavan when she was in Delhi.

Domestic politics is the key

All of it boils down to India-bashing in the neighbourhood often boiling down to domestic politics, where India does not have any substantive role to play but is perceived as playing. In Maldives, for instance, India has invested heavily on physical and social infrastructure under the new regime of President Ibrahim Solih after the predecessor Yameen government had distanced itself. In comparison, Sri Lanka just now seems to be striking a balance, not only because of the crushing economic crisis, but more because of a fuller understanding of trilateral/multilateral dynamics. In the absence of such full-scale national debate and understanding as yet, Maldives is facing a situation, where the Yameen-centric Opposition PPM-PNC combine seems to have invested all India-funded projects as favouring political rival MDP, now in power. The same could be applied to the SJB in Sri Lanka, whose problems with the ruling Rajapaksas seems to have manifested as anti-India rhetoric. In the case of Maldives, of course, the thousand-plus years of one-man rule under kings and then sultans, too has played a role. Politics still remains personality-centric, in the absence of established democratic norms and principles that also pervades through institutions. This is proving to be less and less of the same, independent of the party and leader in power.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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