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July 31, 2020

Is India isolating itself regionally?

Opinion

July 31, 2020

India which had long espoused the cause of non-alignment in its earlier years is now increasingly aligned to the US and serves proxy US regional interests in Asia.

Coupled to this is its transition from an avowed secular narrative to an increasingly Hindutva rhetoric. The net result of these fundamental directional changes have been devastating for India’s standing in the region.

The exaggerated response of the US in undoing it’s accords with Iran and imposing strict economic embargoes on it extends to influencing its ally India to purchase oil from the GCC countries rather than Iran. It has also persuaded India to restrict its investment in developing Chabahar. Instead of pressurizing Iran into submission, these acts have only served to push Iran into a long term accord with China as part of the latter’s BRI. The deal involves $400 billion investment from China in Iran’s energy sector and multiple infrastructure projects. In return, Iran will sell oil to China at subsidized rates for the next 25 years.

Iran has also excluded India from the Chabahar-Zahidan railway project in which India was Iran’s main partner. This puts an end to Indian hopes of developing an alternate trade route to CPEC and Gwadar by linking Russia, the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan to Chabahar. India’s growing military ties with Israel are yet another source of great concern and unhappiness for Iran which views the US and Israel as partners posing an existential threat for the present Iranian leadership .

Indian woes in Afghanistan do not end with it’s exclusion from the railroad project. US withdrawal from Afghanistan and dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government will further reduce Indian influence in the country, especially if Pakistan adopts the role of an even-handed, non-partisan, facilitator of the process.

Even Russia is not happy about India acquiescing to US pressure against purchasing the S400 air defence system from Russia. Too close a nexus with the US is certainly costing India dearly in its relationships in this region.

The other factor behind India’s souring relationships is its increasing bellicosity with its immediate smaller neighbors. Nepal is landlocked, with India as its only trade route. India has used this to bully Nepal into toeing its political line. There is a longstanding border dispute between the two countries in Kalapani, near the Chinese border. This has recently flared up following a new map released by India which shows this disputed area as Indian territory, a claim that Nepal completely rejects. Nepal has built road links with China to open up new trading route options and escape from its dependence on India. It is now considering a rail link as well.

The Nepalese prime minister has also disputed the Indian stand on the construction of the Ayodhya temple at the Babri Masjid site by claiming that the real Ayodhya, or the birthplace of Rama, is in southern Nepal. This strikes at the heart of Modi’s avowed manifesto pledge.

India and Bangladesh have enjoyed the best of relationships, especially under Hasina Wajed’s government. After all India was the midwife that delivered Bangladesh. However, of late some areas of concern have crept into this relationship. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) that India has said it will introduce, will identify illegal immigrants in the country. It will require residents to provide documentary evidence of Indian ancestry, thus jeopardizing the status of millions of Bengalis who had fled from what was then East Pakistan to neighboring India and have been residing there ever since.

They may be declared as illegal immigrants and asked to return to Bangladesh, creating a huge refugee problem for the latter. Complicating matters further is the proposed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), that will confer automatic citizenship rights to illegal non-muslim migrants from neighboring countries including Bangladesh. The obvious implication is that these minorities are not being treated well in these countries and India would therefore welcome them. This would be bad publicity for Bangladesh and its image as a pluralistic, secular state. A third cause of Bangladeshi unease is what it perceives as inadequate Indian help with the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.

Against this backdrop, China has been making friendly overtures to Bangladesh, offering investment in multiple infrastructure projects as part of it’s BRI venture. The total committed Chinese investment in Bangladesh is now $38 billion. China is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and accounts for 34 percent of Bangladesh’s total imports. China is also the top source of arms import for Bangladesh, accounting for 20 percent of all Chinese arms sales, putting Bangladesh second only to Pakistan on this list.

Additionally, China has recently offered Bangladesh a grand tariff exemption on 97 percent of its exports to China. Ostensibly meant to cushion the economic impact of Covid-19, this huge concession will further woo Bangladesh into China’s circle of influence. As a result of all these issues and measures, China has made major inroads in Bangladesh while problems have begun to surface in the India-Bangladesh friendship.

Yet another potential thorn in India’s side is Pakistan’s initiative in getting China full membership of Saarc. This proposal enjoys support from Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives as well, as the smaller countries see China as a growing economic player in the region.

It is clear that India’s adoption of the role of America’s regional political consort, coupled with a coercive diplomatic posture with its neighbours has soured many of its relationships. It stands increasingly isolated with its foreign policy in tatters and no amount of bluster from Modi’s office can camouflage that.

The writer is a senior surgeon, poet and sports aficionado