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Regional challenges await Indian government

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — With India facing a regional security milieu in which all states on its periphery, barring Bhutan, are engulfed by crises of various kinds and magnitude, the new government has little time to waste in the realm of foreign policy.

For all the talk of India as a rising global power, the country has found it difficult to emerge as a leader in its own backyard. China’s growing reach in South Asia has weakened New Delhi’s influence, alarming Indian policymakers. Nothing illustrates this better than India’s desperate attempt to seek a voice in the rapidly evolving situation in Sri Lanka.

With the Sri Lankan military declaring victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), New Delhi will have to dramatically recalibrate its strategy toward the island nation. Colombo has promised to undertake major development in former Tiger-controlled areas in the north and has pledged to protect the rights of the minority Tamils. Yet, the death of Tamil leader Velupillai Prabhakaran sparked incidents of violence across the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, underlining the balancing act that New Delhi must perform.

When domestic political considerations constrained India from providing defense assistance to Sri Lanka, China moved in to fill the void and is now one of the largest defense suppliers to Colombo. China’s ties with Colombo give it a foothold near crucial sea lanes in the Indian Ocean as well as entry into what India considers its sphere of influence. China not only supplies military hardware and training, but is also helping Colombo explore for gas and build a modern port in Hambantota.

To counter Chinese influence, India must step up its diplomatic offensive and offer Colombo reconstruction aid. With the LTTE now out of the picture, Indian government should have greater strategic space to manage bilateral ties. India will insist that Colombo take quick action to provide relief and rehabilitation to the displaced Tamils and initiate plans to integrate the Tamils into mainstream society.

Though India would like Colombo to work out a devolution package for the Tamils, it might not be possible because the Rajapakse government doesn’t control Parliament. New Delhi’s Sri Lankan policy will have to be subtle yet effective, balancing India’s domestic sensitivities and strategic interests.

Nepal also requires immediate attention. The resignation of the Maoist-led government in Nepal has plunged the Himalayan kingdom into crisis and India is being blamed for pulling strings from behind the scenes. New Delhi must allay concerns that it is interested in controlling Nepalese politics while quietly nudging Nepalese political parties into forming a stable government and working to counter China’s growing influence.

The combination of rising Islamist extremism and nuclear weapons has made Pakistan perhaps the most dangerous state in the world today. There is growing apprehension in India that a massive infusion of U.S. aid is indirectly bankrolling Pakistan’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, India remains less than impressed with Pakistani military’s offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley. It believes that Pakistan is only acting to allay Western concerns, and will continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan to further its strategic agenda vis-a-vis India.

India has been unable to articulate an effective Pakistan policy since the Mumbai terror attacks in November. This will be the top priority of the new government.

Bangladesh’s political institutions remain fragile and the role of its armed forces has still not been clearly defined. The army may have temporarily moved out of politics, but such incidents might give it an excuse to reclaim an active role. India’s priority will be to support the new dispensation in Dhaka so that democratic forces can be strengthened in the country over the long term.

India’s structural dominance in South Asia makes it a natural target of resentment among its smaller neighbors. Most of these states have sought to balance Indian influence by courting China. India’s challenge is twofold: First, it must engage its neighbors in a productive manner that will allow it to realize its dream of emerging as a global power. Second, it must prevent China from gaining a strategic foothold in South Asia and preserve its influence in the region.

How the new Indian government responds to the myriad challenges in its neighborhood will be the first test of its effectiveness.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College in London.