In the past few months, India has witnessed a remarkable, if somewhat under-appreciated, change in its external constellation. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar have exhibited a renewed interest in improving ties with India. Nepal presents another such opportunity. What has changed? Consider Afghanistan first. The Hamid Karzai government always considered India a “good friend” and Pakistan “a brother”. That kinship has not altered: only the brother has started biting. Soon after a former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated, Karzai’s first visit outside his country was to New Delhi. Defence ties between the two countries, always hostage to Pakistani approval, are no longer a taboo subject.
In Myanmar, a new president with democratic ambitions wants to lean more towards New Delhi and less towards Beijing. His cancellation of a major Chinese hydropower project was a strong signal in this respect. In any “normal” country, the construction of dams is the preserve of hydraulic engineers. But Myanmar’s no ordinary country. An international pariah for long, it has found comfort only in China and, to a limited extent, India. Even trifling decisions had the potential to antagonize its northern neighbour. Yet, the new president, Thein Sein, did that. If he wants closer ties with India, his wish should be reciprocated. This is one opportunity that won’t knock on our door again.
At the moment, these are the only opportunities: These have resulted from third countries “mismanaging” their ties. Real gains will come only when Indian diplomacy and economic help are visible. Here, unfortunately, the record leaves much to be desired. Bangladesh is a good example of how the requests of a friendly government are not acceded to without delays and procrastination, if they are at all. The present government in Dhaka has invested a serious amount of scarce political capital to improve ties with India. That opportunity is slipping away, fast.
This week another hopeful friend, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai of Nepal, will be visiting India. Ideally, when he returns to Kathmandu, most items on his list should be ticked “yes”. That will enable him to face his rival Prachanda, who is no friend of India, much better. If we’re ever to prevent Nepal from being lost to China, it is important that Bhattarai’s position be strengthened. Our diplomats have done a fine job in Kathmandu in recent years, it is time those gains were consolidated.
Ensuring better and friendly ties with these countries will give us vital strategic space. In recent years, this has shrunk considerably, making foreign policy more a fire-fighting operation than the deliberative exercise it ought to be.
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