Analysis: India should learn lessons in neighbourhood diplomacy

Analysis: India should learn lessons in neighbourhood diplomacy

How should India deal with smaller democratic neighbours, especially those with a Muslim majority? Are the BJP’s domestic politics a handicap in managing relations with them?

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, January 12, 2024, 11:24 PM IST
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Elections in two of India’s Muslim majority neighbouring states have brought focus on the government’s diplomacy. The presidential election in Maldives was held in September last but the inauguration of new President Mohamed Muizzu was on November 17.

The parliamentary election in Bangladesh followed on January 7. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a fourth successive term, with her party Awami League (AL) winning 222 seats out of 300. But 62 seats went to independents, allegedly fielded by AL itself. Jatiya Party (Ershad) came a distant third with 11 seats. The US and many observers labelled it manipulated, especially because the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia boycotted the election. Also the polling percentage plummeted to a claimed 40% from double that in 2018.

While in Bangladesh a pro-India party continues in power, in Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu got elected on a “Out India” campaign. He has proximity to Islamist elements and the pro-China former president Abdulla Yameen, jailed on corruption and money laundering charges. On being elected in September, even before assuming charge, he announced the shifting of the jailed Yameen to house arrest. Leading to the election a mob had overrun the Indian High Commission-sponsored Yoga Day celebration in the capital Male. Subsequent events merely flow from this animus.

There are lessons that emerge from this neighbourhood diplomacy. Proximity to a centrist regime friendly towards India can get exploited by the Opposition to gain power. In Bangladesh there is danger that PM Sheikh Hasina’s strong-arm tactics of marginalising Opposition parties may backfire. Khalida Zia, the face of BNP, is under house arrest over corruption charges and her rightwing ally Jamaat-e-Islami, demonised over its pro-Pakistan past and participation in genocide. In future, any post-Awami League government may adopt India-bashing like in Maldives.

How, then, should India deal with smaller democratic neighbours, especially those with a Muslim majority? Are the BJP’s domestic politics a handicap in managing relations with them? Some argue that the BJP’s ideology has not affected the outreach to Gulf sheikhdoms. It can be countered that in nations having authoritarian, single-family rule, public opinion is irrelevant. For instance, the Gaza war and Israel’s ruthless bombings causing high civilian casualties is upsetting the common man, especially in the Islamic nations. This ire would be directed at Israel-friendly powers like India. Despite that, UAE’s president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed was in Gujarat exuding warmth towards PM Narendra Modi and announcing investments in Gujarat.

Amongst the six Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) nations a divide exists between those like Bahrain and UAE which have signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, normalising relations, and the rest. Saudi Arabia withdrew when close to reconciliation once the Gaza war commenced. UAE has merely issued pro-Palestinian statements but not ostensibly downgraded relations with Israel. Thus, hosting the Emirati president does not establish that the BJP’s majoritarianism does not impact relations with the Islamic world. Countries that view the UAE with suspicion would include Iran, Qatar and perhaps even Kuwait, which has a noisy and opinionated parliament.

In a polarised world, with China and Russia wooing the Global South, India is struggling to maintain strategic independence. An attempt is underway to make the expanded BRICS an anti-US platform. That is why PM Narendra Modi skipped the last virtual summit called by South Africa to discuss the Gaza conflict. South Africa is confronting Israel more forthrightly than other BRICS members. It lowered diplomatic representation and has approached the International Court of Justice alleging war crimes by Israel in Gaza.

What could India do differently to overcome these dilemmas? Firstly, the BJP must accept that toxicity in domestic politics cannot always be insulated from diplomacy. Next, all big powers combine expediency with principles. In SAARC nations India must attempt to shape their politics, using goodwill, persuasion or even compellence. For that an outreach is needed to all sections of political opinion. For instance, while Sheikh Hasina’s victory is welcome, her crushing of opposition spells disaster in the future, whenever her opponents seize power. India must coax her to reduce the polarisation, help Khalida Zia to be exonerated provided she breaks away from the Jamaat. Her exiled son Tarique Rahman in London should be engaged and cultivated.

Returning to the Maldives, despite gross diplomatic lapse by their deputy ministers the response should have been a measured public scolding combined with private reading of the riot act. Having let the BJP’s troll army hijack the issue, a compromise becomes difficult. In fact it has pushed Maldives deeper into Chinese embrace. The parliamentary elections are due in Maldives by April. India’s ability is diminished now to help India-friendly parties like Ibrahim Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party, currently controlling the Majlis. President Mohamed Muizzu is best managed if India’s friends emerge winners in the parliamentary election. Playing to India’s domestic opinion by ratcheting-up anti-Maldives jingoism will be counterproductive. Sensible diplomacy requires not only to engage the party in power but also those who may succeed it.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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