Moral consistency in New Delhi’s actions, and not money or muscle power, can counter Chinese and U.S. inroads into the region

Within 48 hours of taking back control of Male airport from the Indian consortium GMR, Maldivian Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim had touched down in Beijing. The timing of the trip was probably coincidental, but the signal to India was unambiguous. As Col. Nazim and the Chinese Defence Minister, Gen Liang Guanglie, signed a military agreement, with China offering $3 million and more in free defence aid, the message that Maldives is looking far beyond India for its defence needs rang out. The year 2012 also saw the Maldives reach out to the United States, which has been keen to set up a base (to occupy the one vacated by the United Kingdom in 1976) on the southern atoll of Gan.

The rights and wrongs of the GMR deal will be argued in courts and at the negotiating table for some time to come. Yet, the fact that the Indian government tried to intercede, even threaten the Maldivian government, and failed, is an indicator of the loss in India’s influence in this island nation. The image of India, a $3 trillion economy, attempting unsuccessfully to flex its muscles with an island nation which has a GDP of just $2 billion should cause even more discomfort.

In fact, India’s waning influence was visible in February 2012, when former President Nasheed was ousted by President Waheed. India was informed only after the fact, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was disastrously advised to immediately endorse the new government. When India finally raised concerns over the coup and the crackdown on protesters, and sent a special envoy to Male, the envoy landed more than 24 hours after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who had flown half way around the world to show Washington’s interest in events. Those days of indecision have cost the Indian government dearly. Since then, the U.S. has kept up its voice for democracy and free elections as a way of staying engaged, while managing to discuss the possibility of taking over the base in Gan Island. China, which stayed out of the political situation, has engaged with the new government strategically and economically to the tune of millions of dollars in deals.

In Myanmar

The pattern of waning influence continued in other parts of India’s neighbourhood in 2012 — in countries Robert Kaplan refers to as “shadow zones”; those that fall within India’s shadow. In Myanmar, for example, the year saw historic changes, as pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi entered Parliament. For the past decade China has dominated the Myanmar economy; now it is the U.S. that is welcome as it has lifted sanctions. India, its fourth largest trading partner, has remained at about 13 in the list of countries investing in Myanmar. On the other side of the political spectrum, India won no praise from Ms Suu Kyi, who made a point of visiting Europe and the U.S. before coming to New Delhi, and spoke of her “disappointment with India” for engaging with the military junta in the intervening years. India, as is often the case, has fallen between two stools, and appears neither pragmatic, nor principled in the process.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, a country where India is the largest investor and trading partner, the year saw a deep schism in relations after India voted against Lanka at the U.N. Human Rights Council. The move was justified by the government’s growing concern over the treatment of Tamils and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to keep his promises of devolution. Even so, it was a break from India’s past conduct. India voted on a “country-specific” resolution at the U.N. body. Next, by endorsing a U.S. resolution against its own neighbour, it advertised how little influence its bilateral pressure has. China, in contrast, showed itself to be a more dependable partner in the region by backing Sri Lanka.

Bangladesh

If the impression that the vote was done under pressure from Tamil Nadu’s leaders made the government in New Delhi seem weak, in the case of ties with Dhaka too, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chose to bow to the wishes of a State government. More than a year after Dr. Singh’s visit to Bangladesh announcing several agreements, India has been able to seal neither the Teesta agreement for water, nor the swap of land enclaves. It seems even less likely that the government will prevail on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to push the Bangladesh accords now, given that she is no longer a UPA ally. In Dhaka, the Hasina government will have less leeway to negotiate with elections due next year. India’s broken promises to Bangladesh are made more tragic by the earlier commitment it had made: “deliver on terror, and India would go the extra mile.” In the past four years, the Hasina government has delivered more than 20 wanted terrorists, including the top leadership of ULFA and Bodo groups, and conducted crackdowns on camps inside Bangladesh. But India has been unable to keep its end of the bargain.

Nepal and Bhutan

In other parts of the neighbourhood too, there are examples of India’s loss of influence. In Nepal, despite several botched efforts, New Delhi has been unable to help with government formation or the writing of the constitution. Indian investment has fallen, with the loss of bids for Kathmandu airport, and passport printing, while China has bagged the country’s biggest investment project, the West Seti hydropower plant, originally meant to supply electricity to India. Even Bhutan, a country with which India’s relations have been untroubled, took baby steps out of India’s shadow by standing for a U.N. Security Council seat on its own in 2012, a bid it lost.

This year must then be the one when India regains its lost influence among geographically smaller neighbours.

India’s moves

It would, of course, be unfair to conclude that India hasn’t taken large steps in investing in these countries. In 2012 alone, India extended lines of credit and infrastructural spending worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, while boosting bilateral trade with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Housing projects in Jaffna, the parliament in Kabul and the Sittwe port renovation project in Myanmar are all symbols of Indian efforts to reach out in the region. But if it is to counter China and the U.S. seeking twin “strings of pearls” here, then that cannot be achieved from muscle or money power, but from moral consistency in its actions.

(Suhasini Haidar is senior Editor, CNN-IBN, and presents the show “WorldView.”)