Originally Published 2011-12-01 00:00:00 Published on Dec 01, 2011
Recent developments clearly illustrate that India needs to urgently address some of its internal dynamics to ensure that its neighbourhood policy can achieve the desired results.
India's "Neighbourhood Policy": Internal Challenges
India's policy of engaging its neighbours appears to be paying dividends of late, as relations with all the surrounding countries seem to be improving. This is happening outside the framework of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), with New Delhi actively engaging neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and, of course, Pakistan. India has also been very pro-active in its relationship with non-SAARC member, Myanmar.

India's this pro-active approach should be welcomed as a stable Asia in general and a manageable South Asia in particular is something desired by the wider international community. Recent developments, however, clearly illustrate that India needs to urgently address some of its internal dynamics to ensure that its neighbourhood policy can achieve the desired results.

First, as far as the relationship with the neighbours is concerned, some of the border states, such as West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh, and Tamil Nadu, adjacent to Sri Lanka, do not always seem to be on the same page as New Delhi. They have internal constituencies to address. For instance, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, declined to sign the Teesta Treaty intended to apportion the sharing of river waters between India and Bangladesh. This caused immense embarrassment to the central government, which has been pushing hard for a better relationship with Bangladesh. Ms Banerjee pulled out of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's trip to Dhaka in September 2011, expressing her reservations about the treaty, which she expected to be signed then. Ms Banerjee's opposition prompted the Centre to put the treaty on hold and to consult West Bengal before signing it. It is also worth noting that, on 16 November, the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister had a meeting with Ms Banerjee in Calcutta.

In the south, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha implored the Indian PM to take a tougher stance against the Sri Lankan Navy, which, allegedly, had been attacking Indian fishermen in the Palk Strait. New Delhi has undertaken damage control with regard to the Teesta Treaty, but needs to play a more proactive role in the issue of the Tamil Nadu fishermen, so as to ensure that it has no adverse impact on the Delhi-Colombo relationship.

Second, India has for long treated border states in the north-east as zones of conflict, rather than as gateways of opportunity to improve relations with neighbours like Bangladesh, Burma and China. This seems to be changing of late, with a growing realisation that border states can be useful gateways. But internal issues, such as the law and order problems in the north-eastern states, will need to be addressed to give a meaningful boost to trade with Burma and other neighbours. Otherwise, India's "Look East" policy will remain a mere dream. The latest blockade in Manipur state - which has lasted more than 100 days - is a perfect illustration of that point. Apart from causing extreme discomfort to the residents of the state, it has hampered trade with Burma.

Similarly, in Kashmir, genuine grievances of the populace need to be addressed. Of late, for example, the Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, has been demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, under which military personnel are deployed to unstable regions. The central government, however, is reluctant to do so. If tensions persist between the two governments over the role of the military in Kashmir, public resentment could once again have a negative impact on cross-border trade. It is thus time for the problems faced by border states to be genuinely addressed and for New Delhi to stop apportioning all the blame for internal problems to its neighbours.

Third, while the government talks about a harmonious relationship with its neighbours, a jingoistic electronic media misses no opportunity to hype-up issues involving neighbours such as China and Pakistan. The government cannot be a spokesperson for other countries, but the Indian Prime Minister has been urging the media to exercise restraint. More needs to be done, however, to counter charges by the electronic media, especially when they accuse India of being weak, even where it is not. Unfortunately, whenever the Prime Minister is about to meet the leaders of China or Pakistan, TV channels, especially Times Now, leave no stone unturned highlighting the news of Chinese incursions or some negative coverage relating to Pakistan. While the job of the media is to report, coverage such as that outlined above, is done solely with the intent of improving ratings. Recent reporting by Indian newspapers also focussed on divergences between India and China on the issue of the South China Sea. Those in the media perhaps forget that this reporting ultimately shapes public opinion; popular perceptions about China and Pakistan can thus become skewed.

In this situation, the media should exercise restraint and not try to up the ante where it is not necessary. Perhaps New Delhi needs to play a more pro-active role and genuinely attempt to clarify misgivings in the media, as well as the public, about India being soft on its neighbours. Currently, the government's response is very much a kneejerk reaction; when the media hurls accusations at the government, the latter is always on the defensive.

For a successful neighbourhood policy to come to fruition, it is imperative that India begins to deal with some of these internal challenges.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: futuredirections.org

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.