After the reasonably self-satisfying oratory victories at the UN General Assembly, the support of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan to India’s boycott of the upcoming SAARC summit to be hosted by Islamabad is celebrated as a major victory in the campaign to isolate Pakistan.
Unfortunately, in real terms it’s not a even minor victory. In fact, it’s no victory at all.
There are two reasons for this: one, SAARC is a fallacy, an absolute vestige to perpetuate the memory of the British Raj, that has provided no value to India or the region and; two, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan eat out of India’s hands and if they don’t stand up for India even without being prodded, there is something seriously wrong with our external relations.
However, despite SAARC’s utter uselessness, the boycott would have made some sense had the countries that supported India been Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka. India had invested heavily in these countries as well – particularly Nepal whose very survival had been linked to India. Unfortunately, all the three, even after enjoying years of bilateral generosity, have given up India for China.
What’s more, even without the support of China, they won’t back India at the cost of Pakistan. In fact, Sri Lanka and Nepal are great operational bases for spies looking for trouble in India.
It’s during times like, which although are irrelevant but great opportunities for political optics at home, that we realise that a lot of our resources had been wasted on these three countries and the relationships with them haven’t been mutually beneficial. Nepal and Sri Lanka have always been dubious, partly also due to their national pride and suspicion of a hegemonic neighbour, while we lost Maldives after the regimes of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed.
First let’s take a look at the countries that supported us.
Although money and other amicable agreements on a number of issues make India a friend to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, the relationships with them have always been warm and strong for a long time.
Whenever Sheikh Hasina is in power, India has a great friend in Bangladesh, despite the increasing radicalism and anti-Indian sentiments among the Islamists in the country. Hasina’s affinity for India is also derived from the legacy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom India helped found Bangladesh.
Rahman is still a popular political icon for the old-timers in India and Hasina naturally enjoys the patronage and hence returns the favour. In addition to a billion dollars granted in 2011, India gave Bangladesh US$ two billion line of credit last year. Both the countries have signed water-sharing and border agreements that have eased the tension between them. India is also Bangladesh’s second biggest importer. They can’t go against India, particularly when Hasina is in power.
Bhutan has an umbilical cord relationship with India. India is the biggest financier for its five year plans and more than 90 per cent of its exports are to India. Electricity, consumed by India, makes about 14 per cent of its GDP and plants with a total capacity of 10,000 MW are at various stages of planning and completion with Indian support.
India is its friendly lifeline. And Bhutan doesn’t ever forget it: at the Thimpu SAARC summit — its first ever, way back 2010 — India was the star and Pakistan, a sulking back-bencher.
The situation is similar with Afghanistan too – the relationship and trust go all the way back to the Soviet era and it has never diminished except during the Taliban regime puppeteered by Pakistan. In opinion polls, Afghans prefer India to even the US and the Chinese. Except for the Islamists, Afghans have a habitual dislike for Pakistan, which wants to use their country for geopolitical leverage. India has sunk billions in Afghanistan (till 2012, its grants totalled US $ 10.2 billion) and has helped its reconstruction in all spheres – from steel factories and roads to dams and agriculture. Even its sprawling parliament complex was built by India. It’s only natural that Afghanistan stood up for it, when it wanted to sight Pakistan.
And the other three countries?
India is unable to win back Nepal and Sri Lanka mainly because of China and misplaced national pride. In 2014-15, China’s assistance to Nepal stood at US$ 37.95 million while India’s was only US$ 22 million. Moreover, the Nepalese feel that India is meddlesome, whether it was the recent blockade or its support to the Madhesis. In fact, some analysts even feel that it’s this anti-India sentiment that led to the present political rapprochement in the country.
With Sri Lanka, the relationship has been strained since the beginning of the civil war in the eighties. During final push against the LTTE, the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa could get open and generous support from Pakistan, in terms of weapons and training while India couldn’t do anything overtly, and investments from China. In Maldives, although a great friend during the entire presidentship of Gayoom, India’s support to his rival and successor Nasheed ruined the equation.
It’s not just China, Pakistan also has a formidable presence in all the three countries. For Pakistan, they are also strategic watch towers to look at India. You see them everywhere in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
So, if the seemingly proactive support from Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh is a geopolitical victory for India, the silence of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives is a victory for Pakistan.
But the real question is, if it matters at all? Does a SAARC summit mean anything for India?
Absolutely not, because SAARC is not ASEAN, EU or the NAFTA. Except for some “foreign” postings of officers of the member countries and meaningless treaties (one such treaty laughably is on terrorism which hasn’t prevented Pakistan from being a sponsor of terror), it has no value.
Geo-politically, it’s a distraction; in terms of trade, it’s insignificant. India’s exports to the countries of the region were only seven percent of its total international trade and if at all it wants do business within the region, it has bilateral trade agreements, including with Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Give something back like Pathankot and Uri. Then we have reasons to rejoice.
Courtesy: Washington Post