top of page
  • Writer's pictureTiya


Updated: Jan 27, 2022


Former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh once said, ‘the real test of foreign policy is in the handling of neighbours.’ While South Asian countries have shared strong historical and cultural ties, the region itself remains embedded with geopolitical complexities. After the colonial experience, the quest to search for a common identity began, reflected in early initiatives such as the Asian Relations conference- which stressed on the imperative for forging deeper ties in South Asia.

South Asia presents an asymmetrical landscape laden with political fractures, insurgencies, migration, boundary disputes, rapidly evolving economic and social changes. The diverse national interests of the neighbours often tend to collide, resulting in regional mismatches and in a noticeable trend of political ‘othering’. Many of India’s neighbors continue to view its presence as an overbearing ‘big brother’. India’s interventionist footprints across South Asia to “secure the region” have not been welcomed by its neighbours. Many questions arise. With this imperative to address the intricacies of India’s complex neighbourhood and to develop an inclusive blueprint for the region, a larger conversation is necessitated.

The panel consisted of prestigious names- Dr Sukh Deo Muni, Dr. Pallavi Raghavan, Pramit Pal Chaudhari, and Dr. Khinvraj Jangid.

The floor of the debate was opened by the moderator, Yajur Arora with the following question:

There is an argument that New Delhi has inherited from its colonial masters an imperialist mindset, which reflects in its interactions with its neighbours, resulting in India thinking of the entire South Asia as its exclusive sphere of influence.

Pallavi Raghavan(PR): To understand the context in which this idea of a big brother arose, I would like to offer a historian’s perspective. One of the priorities of the colonial state was to protect its Indian possessions by attempting to ringfence its frontiers from the threat of external invasions. The approach developed by viceroys such as Lord Curzon, was to develop buffer states, frontier zones, which would help to protect the territorial integrity of India. That was all that the place was envisioned as, not having an identity of its own. The big brother syndrome also operates with that kind of a mindset.

Yajur Arora( YA) : Given our size, strength and military power, we are in a situation where we will always cause anxieties among our neighbours- as the saying goes: we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, a situation we can’t really help. Do you agree with the view that regardless of what India does, India’s neighbours will be anxious.

Pramit Pal Chaudhari( PC): Well, the size is definitely an issue. If you look at South Asia, India’s dominance whether in GDP( which makes up of two-thirds of the total GDP in South Asia), or population is actually remarkable. Given that foreign policy decisions in our neighbourhood are often decided on remarkably short time trajectories, by a political system that will not be looking too far into the future, having a domestic dimension- the decisions will always be more political and less strategic. The Sri Lankan issues are always very deeply embedded in the concerns about Tamil politics, or Nepal Madhesi population’s links to northern India, Pakistan with whom we share a different dynamic…Resulting in

neighbourhood policies which while are rhetorically very high sounding, based on the assumption that due to historic- cultural ties that there will be affinity between us, and that is definitely the case with countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. But these countries have their own dynamic. Let’s look at

Bangladesh- with a population of 170 million, it’s only next to India that people happen to think that it is a small country. The neighbourhood policy was more clearly enunciated since the coming of the economic reforms of 1991, since when India has had more to offer to others, that is economic benefits of being close to India. One thing is for sure, we cannot become a great power or a major net player, as long as we do not have stability in the bulk of our South Asian neighbourhood.

YA: One of the very well-articulated policies was the Gujral Doctrine, which was based on the fact that we have two hostile neighbours, i.e.,Pakistan and China, and for ensuring peace, we needed to have a policy of exceptional generosity. But Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives have lately been tilting towards China. Some attribute it to China’s financial power. But is that the entire story? Are they tilting towards China due to its financial wherewithal or are they drifting away from India due to India-related factors?

S D Muni ( SM): I would like to start with the concept of Big Brother. It is a flawed concept when applied to South Asia. It is a typically Western concept. There was an equation comparable to family relationships in the neighbourhood. Indian policy towards neighbours started evolving out of these familial bonds, and that is where the Gujral Doctrine arose, upon the realization that the relationship was far more complex. It is an existential reality of India’s primacy in the region- you cannot avoid it.

India has also played a transformative role in every change that happened in the region, the creation of Bangladesh being one such example.

YA: Do you agree with the popular claim that India’s smaller neighbours need anti-Indianism for their fledgling nationalism?

Khinviraj Jangid( KJ): Yes, they do. Small states are deeply insecure states. More than fears of anarchy, it is the sheer size difference that naturally makes them try to mobilise in that manner. To cite an example, I would like to point to the tale of Bade Bhaisahaab( Big Brother) by Munshi Premchand. There was a time when India was sensitive to the fears of other powers. And that sensitivity helped build trust, and in turn was actually strategic. The shortcomings of India’s neighbourhood policy is the lack of empathy and the lack of understanding of the other, which ends up projecting it as a bully. Our domestic mess also spills over in the region, and our neighbours continue to look at us with suspicion.

It is a complex reality that India cannot get out of.

YA: The subcontinent itself is defined as the ‘Indian subcontinent’ and Indian history defines this subcontinent. Doesn’t this naturally create an identity issue for the relatively smaller states who would probably want to define their identity as separate from the Indian identity. And when we continue to harp on about shared values, aren’t we making it even harder for their unique cultural identity to be

established? Isn’t this strategy serving to the detriment of the neighbourhood policy?

PR: The term civilization’ seems to be hovering in the air. We seem to have a massive churning on our civilizational heritage on the one hand, and on the other hand our identity as a nation state. The idea is that you organize knowledge in the region according to this term. We have to be careful about whether we want India’s foreign policy to overlay onto its civilizational values.

SM: Security is inherent in geostrategy. We annoyed our neighbours on the modern concepts of statecraft. The civilization we are leading towards today places undue emphasis on Hinduism and Buddhism. India needs to focus on Islam- India contributed to Islam via schools like Deobandi. It has to be the composite culture that needs to be emphasized- emphasis of one dominant culture alienates people.

YA: In the same vein, would you agree the despite the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, the domestic rhetoric is interfering in our neighbourhood policy?

S M:We are communalising our Neighbourhood First policy. Look at the way we have carried the CAA out. By communalising the foreign policy, we have faltered each time. These distortions are not corrected because policymakers rarely pay attention to the scholarship on this matter.

YA: We do try to position as the leaders of the Islamic world, we are going and getting involved with organisations like the OIC- do you think that is an ad-hoc policy or does it have substance to it?

SM: It is an ad-hoc policy.

PC: The cultural, religious elements of our foreign policy is a small element. The relationship we have developed with the Persian Gulf is quite transformational. They do not care about India’s domestic policy- their interest in India is driven by a larger political and geo-economic concern. We actually have powerful countries of the OIC, like Saudi Arabia, who are happy to lobby on our behalf. As these countries become more and more sophisticated, they will look less toward the civilizational aspect and more about the deliverance in terms of hard matters of national importance.

YA: Does the belittling attitude of India not trickle down, enter the collective psyche of the citizens of other countries and affect interpersonal relationships ? So, is India gaining in real power and losing in soft power?

PC: This is probably the case. Using terminology like “termites” to describe Bangladeshis, and our immigration policy had fed into that. In my view, soft power has very strong limits. If you look at Afghanistan- India had some of its strongest approval ratings, but did having friendly bonds really help? No, it didn’t help when the Taliban took over, because we had no hard power capacity whatsoever. I recall a conversation with Muhammed Karzai, who said we love you, but you cannot do anything for us- you cannot manufacture a gun, cannot sell us anything, do not share any borders with us, so fundamentally there is very little you can do to contribute to Afghanistan. Now Bangladesh, they have a very clear sense of their own interests, and that will be the final determinant of their relationship.

YA: The Indo-Pakistan rivalry dominated the better part of the first five decades of Independence. Have we de-hyphenated ourselves from Pakistan just to become hyphenated with China? Will Indo- China hostility dominate our strategy going forward?

KJ: In a normal scheme of things, India will have to deal with the strategies China is employing. However, I slightly disagree with Pramit’s assumption that a neoliberal and instrumentalist realpolitik is better than soft power. I wouldn’t underestimate the role of soft power, also because India doesn’t have enough hard power. Afghanistan is an incredibly complex arena, I agree. Balika Vadhu was actually one of the most popular series in Afghanistan, an If we look at the country of Bangladesh, it is the role that

India played during its freedom movement that is still etched in the mind its citizens. We don’t have the capacity for hard power, India has more cultural capacities to take them into the fold.

PR: I just wanted to add here, that as far as the neighbourhood is concerned, reopening debates about the Partition is not going to be of much help. The focus should be on issues such as CAA and NRC. There is going to be a lack of inclination to support India in its endeavors if its domestic rhetoric is so deeply


YA: India has dealt with many of the societal and developmental challenges shared by other South Asian countries- such as child marriage, female infanticide, triple talaq etc. Can we use this collective intelligence to use, which will benefit our neighbours?

KJ: Definitely, all of this adds to India’s influence. However, the narrow realistic methodology to securing yourself, backfires. We cannot afford to look at our neighbours through their security needs. We have to step into their shoes and understand what they need. In terms of aid diplomacy, well we have always been doing that in the region, but now in comparison to China it appears miniscule.

YA: The view is that India wants to be the leader, but does not take the lead. And this most relevant on the economic and trade front- where the regional trade is only 5 percent of the overall trade. Subsequently SAARC and BIMSTEC have failed due to this lack of leadership, becoming forums only for anti-terrorism rhetoric.

SM: India has taken initiative. But there are three areas that Indian foreign-policy makers need to concentrate- casual approach to their sensitivity. Second- the delivery deficit by India- we don’t deliver projects on time. Thirdly, the diverse stakeholders in India’s foreign policy- which often have incompatible views. I like to call the neighbourhood policy as ’Neighbourhood First 2.0,’ because we are actually covering up for the damage that was done earlier.

One is the political turbulence that India gets dragged into, willingly or unwillingly. I remember a statement about this , which said- ‘We are lodged into each other intestines’- so anything that happens on one side, affects the other. Then, there is also an external interference- from China, US and others.

YA: Are the border disputes unique to South Asia?

SM: We have settled most of our disputes. The borders are highly politicised. India actually has no sense of territory, having little bearing on geostrategy. No neighbour is stable constitutionally and politically today- and India is a polarizing factor in the neighbourhood.

YA: And can India do anything about this?

PM: Oh, that will take a long time. India will be perpetually part of the political game in countries like Nepal. The important thing we are doing in the neighbourhood, is bringing in other players like Japan, acting as generous aid providers.

SM: That is also a reflection of India losing confidence in itself to confront the Chinese.

YA: Doesn’t that solidify the image of ‘Big Brother’-If we invite partners to give aid on conditions of India and increase meddling in their domestic affairs?

KJ: The idea of Big Brother is a given. It’s like being born before others, but that doesn’t discomfort by itself, provided the big brother is caring and sensitive enough.

YA: India looks at the neighbourhood from the lens of security. There’s a view that if India lays out red lines, without crossing which, India will not interfere in others’ matters. Can we develop a more ‘ hands-off approach’?

SM: Be it the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, the tarai issue in Nepal- the matters of security are very complex.

PR: We have to think about what exactly it is we mean when we talk about security. We have to be careful not to accept colonial definitions of security. I feel that territory does hold us back, along the lines of what happened in the 19 th century.

PC: The red lines will keep changing- because of our changing economies and power. The definition of a red line will keep shifting. Going to what Khinviraj mentioned, India is terrible at building infrastructureand delivering projects. As simple example is the fact that we have transship seventy percent of our big cargo shipments via Sri Lanka, why/ Because there is no Indian port can do that.In terms of capacity, we have to accept our limitations. China is a GDP six times our size, and the difference with China is here to remain. To the Chinese, there is no scope for comparison. That is also one of the reasons why weh ave to work with the neighbours, to handle China.

YA: This brings me to the concluding question today- It has been argued that better relations with neighbours will unshackle India from its neighbourhood and allow it to pursue its global ambitions more vigorously. What would be your prescription for India to improve its ties with its neighbours?

KJ: The things that India needs to do- cultivate empathy. Strategies can fail, failure of empathy is less likely. Second, cultivating a scholarship on the region. Thirdly, because China is inevitably part of this conversation, it’s good to know that we don’t have to compete with hard power, India should instead work on democracy.

PR: I think the best thing for India’s neighbourhood is to not open old debates on matters like Partition.

YA: A lot of people are of the view that we have buried a lot under the carpet when it comes to these things, which is creating room for a lot of hateful rhetoric that you see prevalent on social media these days. It would probably be a good thing to approach these debates not to take revenge, but from the lens of closure, via the collective memory of these events.

PR: It depends on who you think is burying things. In terms of Partition, you are talking about a very pragmatic, stoic type of people.The best example is that of abducted women in the Partition- the women were more concerned about rehabilitation, resources and jobs, not the revenge rhetoric. So, to piggyback on that sort of historical voice and people who try to give it a different political value from what it actually was- that is not the best way to reconcile oneself with the Partition.

PC: We have to recognize that there is no one-size-fits- all policy. The trajectory of Bangladesh, or Nepal or Bhutan or Sri Lanka is actually very different. For instance, in Nepal, we need to integrate the welfare systems, and the digital identities- which are not necessarily compatible with open borders. The scope remains wide- be it in terms of trade, connectivity and other such areas.

SM: We have to be sensitive to the sensitivities of our neighbours. We will have to harmonise the mutually conflicting stakeholders and improve delivery capacities. We must have a special envoy dealing in political matters in the neighbourhood.

The debate ended with a consensus that India needs to recalibrate its neighbourhood policy and build diverse pathways to accomplish its ambitions in the region.

1,500 views0 comments


bottom of page