Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 27 December 2023

Is India ‘losing’ South Asia? That’s not the question

News Excerpt:

Is India losing its dominance in the Subcontinent? The concern over the perceived loss of influence in South Asia intensifies when developments, viewed negatively from Delhi's standpoint, unfold in the region. India's internal discourse on South Asia appears sentimental, self-referential, and detached from the evolving regional reality.

  • How: The Recent incident where the newly elected Maldives government has asked India to withdraw its military Presence in the island. Some people in India are upset because neighboring countries are challenging India's top position in the area. Others blame India's actions for making these neighbors turn against it. Some want India to be tougher on these countries, while others want India to be nicer to them. However, neither being strict nor being friendly will solve the bigger problems India faces in this region. Many different things inside and outside the region are causing tensions and problems in South Asia.
  • Role of History: The belief that Delhi is losing control over South Asia stems from India's longing for the powerful geopolitical entity created by the British Raj. The British Raj established regional dominance and transformed neighboring territories in their protectorates, a concept embedded in India's collective memory. 
    • However, The Partition of the Subcontinent based on religious lines shattered its unity and led to the formation of new independent nations which resulted in unresolved boundary and territorial disputes that still hinder the region's progress. 
    • Despite aspirations for regional cooperation and appeals to shared civilization and history, the enduring effects of Partition persist, hindering efforts to unite the region. Pakistan views the Kashmir issue as an unresolved matter from Partition and is unwilling to set it aside, even temporarily, for fostering positive engagement with India or promoting South Asian regional integration through SAARC. 
    • The economic partition resulting from India and its neighbors' developmental choices favored self-sufficiency, creating barriers to regional trade by heavily fortifying borders. Despite the region's turn towards globalization in the 1990s, regional economic cooperation has seen some growth, but it remains far below its potential. 
    • However, Pakistan stands out as it hasn't shown readiness for economic collaboration with India, despite discussing geo-economics. Nawaz Sharif aims to change this dynamic if re-elected as prime minister, but whether General Asim Munir will support this shift remains uncertain.
  • Initial Difference & Discourses: Initially, smaller neighboring countries showed deference to Delhi inherited from the British Raj, but they soon realized independent India was different and had its own agenda. 
    • They began asserting their own agency in dealing with India, understanding that India's size didn't guarantee influence over their policies. Similar to India's internal discourse on relationships with more powerful nations like the US, debates about India in the neighborhood often become perplexing. 
    • India's size and influence took time to dispel fears, even regarding simple agreements like the logistics pact (LEMOA) with the US.Neighboring countries, despite their size, are significantly impacted by India's actions and presence in their domestic politics.
  • Contradicting Views: Competing factions among neighboring elites have contradictory views: some seek India's intervention, while others condemn it as hegemonic. Those pursuing a balanced relationship with India face accusations of compromising national sovereignty. 
    • Imran Khan, both as a party member and leader, displayed contradictory stances. Initially, he criticized Pakistan's PM Nawaz Sharif for being too friendly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, labeling a friendliness with Modi as treacherous to Pakistan during the 2018 elections. 
    • However, as Prime Minister, Imran Khan changed his position before the 2019 Indian general election, considering Modi as Pakistan's best option in resolving the Kashmir issue. Yet, this hope was shattered after the Pulwama terror attack and India's subsequent Balakot response.
  • Regional Aspirations: India's regional aspirations, while sounding positive in Delhi, are often perceived by neighbors as attempts to assert regional dominance. Concepts like the RSS's "Akhand Bharat" or the liberal vision of an integrated Subcontinent raise suspicion among neighboring elites, seen as conflicting with their national sovereignties.
  • Can India reclaim the British Raj Role: The notion that India could exert exclusive control over the Subcontinent, akin to the British Raj, was a misconception. 
    • A divided India lacked the power to maintain the old order. In response to India's influence, Pakistan sought support from the US and China to balance India's dominance. 
    • The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan turned the northwest subcontinent into a battleground for proxy wars involving Western powers, Middle Eastern states, Russia, and China. 
    • The aftermath of this conflict caused chaos in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan and significantly altered the Subcontinent's geopolitical landscape.
  • China Factor: India has valid concerns regarding China's significant economic and military expansion in the Subcontinent but cannot prevent the world's second-largest economic and military power from exerting influence. As Western presence diminishes in the Subcontinent, China's strategic significance in South Asia—across economic, military, and technological spheres—will continue to grow, posing greater challenges for India.
  • Middle East: Besides China, the Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are also gaining traction in South Asia due to their increasing economic and military capabilities. 
    • Despite significant changes in international relations within the Subcontinent, two external frontiers face considerable strain: conflict escalation between the Taliban and the Pakistan army in the west, and collaboration between ethnic armed groups and pro-democracy forces challenging the Burmese army's control in the east. 
    • These developments signify the emergence of a drastically transformed Subcontinent compared to the mid-20th century, emphasizing that regions are not static. Geographical form, political structure, and economic orientation of regions, including "South Asia," evolve over time.

Conclusion: The real question, then, is not about India “losing South Asia” but finding ways to gain ground in a changing region. India has enough capabilities to not only preserve its interests, but also expand its influence in its neighbourhood. To do that effectively, though, Delhi must discard the obsession with the old South Asia.

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