If New Delhi does not take the lead, the region cannot respond to various crises collectively
After weeks of protests, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down this month, but that is not the only big political non-electoral change in the neighbourhood in 2021-22. Just a month ago, it was Pakistan; a year ago, it was Nepal. Power changed hands through more coercive means in Myanmar and Afghanistan. Their polities have yet to settle down. How should India react to these changes? Is there a common strain running across the region in these developments? Shyam Saran and Srinath Raghavan discuss these questions and more with Suhasini Haidar. Edited excerpts:
Are these changes in the neighbourhood because of similar political cultures? Or due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, the global downturn and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Shyam Saran: A bit of both, but I would place more emphasis on a much more challenging external environment which all of us are confronting. The COVID-19 pandemic of two years has not only caused economic disruptions, but also social disruptions. More recently, there’s the impact of the crisis in Europe. We are today a globalised, interconnected world, and South Asia is not an exception. And in some cases, several challenges have come together to create a kind of perfect storm. A certain brittleness of the politics of some countries has made the whole effort to cope with these kinds of external challenges much more difficult.
Srinath Raghavan: Political brittleness, along with democratic backsliding, an erosion of democratic norms and procedures are all to blame. There has been an attempt by executives in various neighbouring countries to assert their control over other agencies within the state to sort of devolve power more towards the centre away from federal sort of arrangements, and so on. All this has meant that the style of politics that now seems to prevail across the region is a form of authoritarian populism. And you overlay this change across the region over the past few years with the economic crisis, which is an important one. In fact, I would say that the only parallel that I can think of in recent history is the 1970s. Then we had a similar kind of global economic shock triggered by the oil embargoes which hurt practically every South Asian country, including India. When you put these together — a democratic backsliding, a turn towards authoritarian populism, an economic crisis — what you find is that there are very similar kinds of protests and forms of popular mobilisation taking place across the region. So, there’s something to be said about the sort of pan-South Asian quality to what we are seeing now, though the specifics of the political economy of each country differs.
It also seems there has been no collective response to these challenges. Has South Asia failed in collectively responding to so many similar crises?
Shyam Saran: This is an old challenge — how to fashion a cooperative, collaborative regional response to the common challenges that South Asia faces. The only country which can actually take the lead in order to formulate collaborative responses and mobilise that kind of regionalism is India. But there is an absence of both the awareness and the willingness to play that role here. India appears to have given up on SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), and focuses more on BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). We have seen sub-regional cooperation under, say, the BBIN, i.e. the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal forum, but it is partial. As far as the regional response is concerned, I’m afraid that simply does not exist. Even the limited kind of consultative process that we used to have before is missing. This is a failure. Because if India does not take the lead, it will not happen. We are now working much more at the bilateral level.
Srinath Raghavan: There’s a wider deficit as well. Compared to, say, two decades ago, what is also striking is the level to which even civil society traction across the region has considerably dipped. There was never a time when you could say that there was a consultation type of civil society interaction which was very strong. But we are at a curious juncture where neither high politics nor civil society interaction seems to be going on. But popular movements and mobilisations do seem to be learning a little bit from each other. For instance, the current protests in Sri Lanka clearly have taken a lesson or two out of what happened in the farmers’ protests in India.
The pandemic has caused doubts about the Chinese system, about Chinese abilities. On the other hand, China has started a new South Asian outreach, delivered vaccines when India couldn’t. How has India fared in terms of its push back to China in the neighbourhood?
Shyam Saran: China has far more resources to deploy than India does. But over the last several months, Chinese preoccupation with its own challenges — in particular, what is happening with this zero-COVID policy, the economic disruptions and political stirrings — is growing. It is also preoccupied with the consequences and anticipated consequences of the Ukraine war… whether it had made a wrong bet in aligning itself much more closely with Russia. So, the attention being given to not just South Asia, but other parts of the world is less. Also, in South Asia itself, there is a certain new wariness about the China connection. It may be unfair to hold China responsible for the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, or to say that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) has not been a game changer. But there is a certain wariness about China, and there is a certain opening for India to emerge as a security provider, as an economic support to the countries which are in the middle of the crisis.
Srinath Raghavan: China is certainly in a tight spot. Apart from everything else, it seems the Ukraine crisis will mean everything to the west of Russia is unlikely to be part of any kind of BRI connectivity. But that creates an incentive for the Chinese to double down on other parts of the BRI.
And the U.S., given recent outreaches in the Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh? Do you see the U.S. in South Asia today as a force multiplier for India’s efforts or as a rival to both China and India?
Srinath Raghavan: It is a good thing that the U.S. is helping some of these smaller South Asian countries get on their feet and be able to resist Chinese blandishments. At the same time, I wouldn’t assume the U.S. has too many interests at stake in South Asia. I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on what the U.S. is doing. Inasmuch as it dovetails with India’s interests and plans in the region, it’s something New Delhi will welcome. But a lot has to be done by India. That’s where the action should lie.
Shyam Saran: I would be somewhat more nuanced in that respect. Look at, for example, the effort put in by the U.S. to get this $500 million MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) deal through with Nepal. This seems to indicate that certainly on the periphery of China, the U.S. is interested in maintaining and even expanding its spread, and perhaps in consultation or association with India. There is certainly an interest in the maritime part of South Asia, whether it is Sri Lanka or the Maldives. I see an interest on the part of the Pakistan army and the Pakistani elite in keeping the relationship with the U.S., and there is a certain sense of discomfort with too much dependence on China.
There have been concerns about the authoritarian moves in India. Is this trend going to make it that much more difficult for India to be a South Asian leader? Or is India fitting into the South Asian landscape where there are so many other authoritarian leaders?
Shyam Saran: I don’t think it should be our ambition to become a part of that kind of a landscape in South Asia. We have always been able to aspire to a leadership position precisely because we have been a vibrant democracy. We have been able to demonstrate our ability to handle the incredible plurality and diversity in this country [with] vibrant political institutions, which are so important in order to anchor the democratic spirit. Any setback to that is going to make any aspiration for regional and global leadership harder. If there is a deficit of democracy in India and if policies are followed which instigate communalism and a lack of social cohesion in the country, then it would become very difficult to run any kind of foreign policy. It is very important that you should not let domestic political compulsions begin to influence your external policies, which should be based on a much more sober calculation of our national interest.
Srinath Raghavan: Whether countries in the region are looking to India for leadership or not depends on the quality of India’s growth and economic prosperity. At this point of time, India’s economic position clearly is in no shape to enable it to play a serious leadership role in the region. We need to recognise that the ethnic landscape of South Asia does not follow its political boundaries. We may assume that there are some things that we do in India which are purely aimed at the domestic audience, but it will have a knock-on impact in terms of how our neighbours perceive it, how they react to it. If religious majoritarianism under the name of electoral campaigns is given free license in India, you can be almost sure that it will have negative consequences.
What does India need to do to re-imagine its region as a whole?
Srinath Raghavan: There is a broader shift in the way that we think, for instance, on climate change, and the fact is that the destiny of South Asia hangs or falls together. Like the question about ethnicity, these are not things that can be segregated by international boundaries. We have to take a broader view of what kinds of severe challenges the region faces beyond political compulsions of the here and now. We need a much deeper engagement beyond government, at the level of civil society, even at very localised levels between India and its neighbours, because only then will you be able to act in ways that are meaningful to the peoples of the region as a whole.
Shyam Saran: I do not think that the current approach of marginalising SAARC and giving priority to BIMSTEC is a good idea. I’m not saying BIMSTEC should not be pursued, or BBIN has not achieved some objectives, but these cannot be a substitute for a South Asian regional cooperative forum. The idea should be, how do we work out policies, which then present India as the preferred partner for our region, and India becomes an engine of growth for South Asia.