We live in an extremely hostile neighbourhood.
On our western front, Pakistan faces an existential crisis with its constitutional institutions in a state of perpetual conflict, an intelligence agency gone rogue and large parts of land outside the de facto sovereignty of the Pakistani state and, under Taliban control.
Towards the south, Sri Lanka recovering from decades of civil war and facing serious allegations of genocide is slipping towards autocratic rule.
The former communist guerrillas that now control Nepal, cannot draft a new constitution and the country remains politically paralyzed.
Next, the days of the pro-India Shiek Hasina government in Dhaka seem numbered, with most pundits predicting the return of the anti-India Begum Khaleda Zia and her policies of allowing Bangladesh to be used as safe haven for insurgent groups and fundamental outfits functioning in our northeast.
Myanmar despite its newfound commitment to democracy remains unstable.
The Maldives are in a political crisis.
Finally, across all the nations of South Asia, Chinese influence is proliferating.
India today stands alone, the only beacon of hope and freedom in what would otherwise be a neighborhood of failed states, despotism and extremism.
With the significant challenges to our national security and way of life, what direction should India’s foreign policy take to meet our seemingly intractable geo-political narrative?
First, free markets. Although all the nations of South Asia have ratified the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), the number of exemptions or the ‘Sensitive List’ is over 1000 for each of the countries, rendering SAFTA a real free trade agreement more in rhetoric than reality.
Centuries of colonialism have led us to forget that the strength and prosperity of our ancient civilization came from trade and economic exchange. There was a resurgence of this thought however, following the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s. Indian corporations now compete on a global scale, generating not only wealth and jobs but also, geo-political soft power. Reliance hoarding crowd the streets of Colombo, and Bollywood, despite an official ban is flourishing in Pakistan. People in Dhaka sing along to the jingles of the latest Airtel commercial and the streets of Kathmandu are full of Tata Nano’s.
The potency of this soft power cannot be underestimated. India becomes intimately involved in the daily lives of all the people of South Asia and associated with enterprise, success and specific products. The economic interdependence created by free trade is a greater guarantor of peace than any diplomatic summit, for the peace is not an ephemeral peace between governments but a lasting bond between peoples. The enmity of centuries that existed between France and Germany was forgotten in a few short years following the economic integration of Europe. Today, the idea of conflict between France and Germany is ludicrous. Despite massive cultural difference, Saudi Arabia remains one of the closest allies of the United States due to their economic interdependence on oil and services. Which country in South Asia would advocate anti-India policies and harbor terrorists if we held the reins of regional economic power?
Indian foreign policy must therefore, increasingly focus on making SAFTA work effectively. We should not hesitate to begin cutting our own Sensitive List first. The benefits accrued from free trade would soon lead other governments to follow suit. As the largest economy in the region, the growth and prosperity of our neighbors would soon become intricately linked to our own, and any anti India action would be a self-goal.
Second, free people. The clichéd aphorism of great power bringing great responsibility holds true for India. As the world’s largest democracy, and the only free society in a dark and troubled neighborhood, it must be our responsibility to support and defend movements of liberty.
The Indian government has ignored the replacement of the first democratically elected president in Maldives for decades and has refused to press his successor to call for elections. Even more tragic was India’s silence as Burma’s was taken over by the military Junta. Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy activist Aung Saan Suu Kyi, who lived in New Delhi while she attended LSR College was often dismayed that India, a country with which she had an intimate connection, never offered any tangible support for her movement to bring back democracy to Burma, during her almost 20 year long house arrest.
Even beyond South Asia, when people began to topple dictatorships during the Arab Spring, India choose to abstain from supporting these movement of liberty in Libya, Egypt and now Syria.
It is imperative that India stop sitting on the fence and unequivocally, come out in support of freedom and democratic movements. It must be an integral part of our foreign policy to ensure that peoples of South Asia and the rest of world enjoy the benefits of living a free society such as ours. From a more strategic perspective, the Democratic Peace Theory proves that democracies almost never go to war with one another, an academic theory over which there is much agreement. Therefore, the creation of more democratic norms through support to democratic movements is in our national interest and something India’s foreign policy should underline.
Putting the two principles together, I would argue that India must stand for ‘Free Trade, and Free People’. The challenges to our national security are immense but an India committed to economic bonds between the peoples of South Asia and an India, unquestionably on the side of democracy and the people within these states, can rise to meet any challenge that our difficult geo-political situation creates and hopefully, usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in our sub-continent.