Saturday, February 23, 2008

Turbulence in South Asia

The challenges call for a new strategy

January and February are described in Delhi as the "Seminar Season". Friends from far and near descend on the Capital, to discuss international developments ranging from global warming to events in our neighbourhood. The "Seminar Season" also brings in hordes of American and European scholars, who naturally prefer the Delhi fog to the sweltering heat of the Capital's summer. The last two months in Delhi have been no exception to this phenomenon. But what one has noticed this year is that friends from our neighbouring SAARC countries have been more candid about discussing the neighbourhood, free from inhibitions and acrimony of the past. There also appears to be realisation that despite its shortcomings, Indian democracy has proved to be more vibrant than many in our neighbourhood ever imagined.

In candid discussions with friends from our South Asian neighbours, one finds many paradoxes and contradictions. But these complexities perhaps reflect the reality of where we stand today. There is a growing realisation that as a new generation of Indians, free from the inhibitions of their predecessors, run the wheels of industry and commerce in this country, apart from important sections of our national life like the media, Indians are more self-confident about themselves and their future than ever before. One can look at our neighbourhood through different prisms. A Pakistani friend of mine recently brought out some hometruths about the centrality of India to South Asia, when he noted that Indians constitute 80 per cent of the region's population and account for 77 per cent of its GDP. But my friend also had certain stark statistics to allude to about India and its neighbourhood.

The per capita income in South Asia at $ 692 is even below that of sub-Saharan Africa, which is $ 746. Moreover, South Asia has the world's highest illiteracy rate, at 45 per cent of its population and it has growing rates of incidence of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening, particularly in India.

In contrast to this, a Bangladeshi friend recently spoke with optimism about the prospects for growth in South Asia. It is now acknowledged that led by India with an economic growth of around 9 per cent in recent years, the average rate of growth in South Asia is around 6.5 per cent. The Maldives and Bhutan have preformed extraordinarily well economically in recent years. Despite spiralling jihadi terrorism, Pakistan, with the incredibly low rate of savings of 16 per cent of the GDP, but fortified with massive American-led assistance, has been able to sustain a rate of growth of over 6 per cent in the recent past.

A unique feature of SAARC is that while all its members have common maritime/land borders and extensive economic interaction with India, they have little or no interaction with each other. The substantial increase in intra-regional trade in recent years has largely been driven by increases in bilateral trade with India. Sri Lanka has emerged as the most realistic South Asian neighbour of India, by promoting free trade and welcoming Indian private investment. Bangladesh and Pakistan have yet to get over old mindsets on this score. Concluding a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with Sri Lanka, covering trade in goods, services and investment, would serve as an example to other SAARC members about the benefits of increased economic cooperation. But everyone agrees that endemic corruption has ruined the standards of good governance in the entire region, with India being a classical case, combining a lethal mix of corruption and criminalisation of politics.

South Asia today is among the most volatile regions of the world. Most analysts in India do not believe that there is an imminent danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, though there is unease that things could change if Pakistan does not effectively and expeditiously deal with its domestic turbulence. Pakistan's Afghan neighbours are livid that the entire Pakistani strategic aim seems to be to convert Afghanistan into a satellite state. With NATO troops in Afghanistan now being subject to increasing attacks from the Taliban, whose leaders are evidently operating out of Quetta, the crucial question before the entire region and indeed the international community is when the Pakistan Army will ultimately end its nexus with and support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and Jihadi groups operating in India. Pakistan's Western borders have today become the epicentre of global terrorism, whether in Kabul, Karnataka, Madrid, or London.

India faces daunting challenges along its eastern frontiers also. Having brokered peace between the Maoists and mainstream political parties in Nepal, New Delhi is now finding that led by their Youth Wing, the Maoists are using intimidation to bolster their sagging political support. Complicating matters further, the Madhesis under the banner of the United Madhes Democratic Front are upping their demands. New Delhi cannot certainly countenance demands for "self-determination" by any section in Nepal, especially in view of the consensus in Nepal about the need for a federal and republican constitution. In its efforts to bring the Maoists into the political mainstream, India has to guard against political turbulence in Nepal spilling over into the neighbouring Indian states like Bihar. A similar problem is faced by India along its borders with Bangladesh, with the military-backed government in Dhaka showing no sign of clamping down on Bangladesh groups promoting terrorist violence in India.

Prolonged military rule and a growing nexus between the army establishment, now led by Gen Moeen U. Ahmed, jihadi groups and parties like the Jamat-e-Islami producing conditions for the "Pakistanisation" of Bangladesh, is a prospect that neither India nor the international community can be comfortable with.

Faced with these challenges, New Delhi will have to develop a judicious mix of incentives and disincentives in dealing with its South Asian neighbours. Sadly, in dealing with even friendly neighbours like Sri Lanka, policy initiatives are inhibited and stifled by the "compulsions of coalition politics". Developments in Nepal are becoming intertwined with domestic political rivalries, prejudices and predilections. Admittedly, growing contacts and cooperation within SAARC and expanded civil society interaction have led to a sense of South Asian togetherness and a better appreciation and regard for India's "soft power'.

But New Delhi has failed to raise the diplomatic and economic costs for neighbours who promote terrorism on Indian soil. Most neighbours tend to look at India as a directionless elephant while China, perceived as a supple tiger, is sought to be increasingly involved as a strategic balance. Postures and expressions of good intentions alone can never be a substitute for effective exercise of political will and national power. This is a lesson we have not yet learnt.

The Tribune (India), G. Parthasarathy, 02/21/2008