India’s immediate geopolitical environment has degraded as the Narendra Modi government remained distracted by the Gujarat Assembly elections. Diplomacy regained attention somewhat with the overlapping visits of Ivanka Trump, daughter of US President Donald Trump, and former US President Barack Obama, who was in India for a lecture. The three notable events impinging on Indian national security interests were the elections in Nepal, Sri Lanka’s handover of the strategic port of Hambantota to China and a Sino-Maldivian free trade agreement. All three need a closer examination. In Nepal, the victory of the Left forces was inevitable once an alliance was formed by the two biggest Left parties — the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist Centre (CPN-MC). The chairman of the former, K.P. Sharma Oli, is all set to lead the government while latter’s leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, would head the new Nepal Communist Party formed after the merger. The success of the Left forces is not surprising as the people of Nepal were fatigued after seeing 10 Prime Ministers in as many years and the governments were thus unable to deliver on development or growth. Mr Oli’s nationalistic credentials amongst the hill voters also helped. The Nepalese electorate also seems to have retained its ire over the Indian “blockade” and punished those parties like the Nepal Congress which were seen as not having forthrightly opposed the Indian action. Finally, anti-incumbency hovered over current Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Considering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two trips to Nepal and India’s serious concern over the growing influence of China, the victory of the Left alliance is not good for India. A strong Opposition has emerged, however, thereby ensuring that the Constitution is not fiddled with by the ruling combine. It is also possible that the alliance will have functional problems over the distribution of goodies between erstwhile rivals. But South Block should be wary about the perceived pro-China orientation of Mr Oli. China may push with greater vigour its Belt and Road Initiative connectivity project which can bring its penetration closer to the heart of India in the vital Indo-Gangetic plains. This assumes importance as so far India is among a diminishing group of countries which continue to oppose the Chinese infrastructure project. Of late even the United States and Japan, which had earlier joined the Indian refrain, have been airing more positive views. Indian diplomacy will therefore face a critical test as New Delhi’s competition with Beijing for the affection of the rulers in Kathmandu gets renewed.
Trouble, they say, always comes in bundles. The Chinese intrusion into the Indian periphery became more intense with Sri Lanka handing over the port of Hambantota, at the crucial southern tip of the island, to China on a 99-year lease. Although the Sri Lankans have been at great pains to reiterate that China has been told it shall not be used for military purposes, but going by Chinese conduct in the South China Sea, who is to ensure that China does not, at some future date, alter the terms unilaterally to suit itself. In any case, Sri Lanka can hardly ensure that China will not install dual-use facilities that appear to be for monitoring and controlling maritime traffic when they could equally handily be used for military snooping in the Indian Ocean. In retrospect, Indian policymakers in the past erred in not grabbing the opening when, as is speculated, the Sri Lankans were happy to have India develop the port. On the converse side, it can be argued that it may be more useful to now lease Hambantota airport as the port has drawbacks that even the Chinese may find difficult to overcome to make it a money-spinner.
Finally, the Maldives has been allowed since the time of the UPA government to slowly slide towards authoritarian governance and the crushing of nascent democratic forces. Letting an Indian company GMR be ejected from the control of Male airport was diplomatic pusillanimity when the grounds for doing so were very shallow. Now the government sits on its hands as the Maldives government rushes through its parliament with indecent haste a free trade agreement with China. This really smacks of the kind of helplessness that Mr Modi, when seeking power in the run-up to the 2014 election, had alleged was afflicting his predecessor Manmohan Singh in dealing with neighbours. If even the Maldives can start testing the Indian red lines and get away with it, then India’s neighbourhood policy has well and truly begun to collapse.
Aspiring powers have to function on the basis of a clear vision that theatre and power play are two different processes. They may overlap sometimes, but the former cannot substitute the latter. Come Republic Day 2018, a fresh theatre commences. This time it is the fractious 10 nations of Asean that have been invited to the national party. It is part of the “Act East” slogan of the Modi government. China having already penetrated deeply into India’s immediate periphery, as argued above about the developments in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, India cannot overcome that setback by battling for the affection of its more distant neighbours. It has been rightly said that a great power must not seek to be loved by other nations. It must aim to obtain respect without causing fear, as China does. At the same time the BJP has not invented muscularity in Indian diplomacy. Jawaharlal Nehru helped King Tribhuvan regain his Nepalese throne in 1950. Indira Gandhi had annexed Sikkim, thus eliminating a troublesome buffer with China, in 1975, besides severing Pakistan into two in 1971. The Narendra Modi government’s record, despite repeated muscle-flexing, is rather average in handling the nation’s immediate periphery, where invisible red lines must exist and be enforced.