Events in the neighbourhood — Mohammed Nasheed’s foray into the Indian Embassy in Male, the dilemma over the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka, the Shahbhag protests, and violence against Pakistan’s minorities — have sparked off long overdue reflections in the Indian public sphere about New Delhi’s policy in South Asia.

There have been suggestions that India must reward “pro-India parties” while punishing the “anti-India” forces in neighbouring countries to force them to realign their incentives as a part of a regional doctrine. Others have despairingly written about how a drift in India has eroded its authority and diminished the instruments at its disposal to implement policy goals outside its borders.

The region is indeed in a state of ferment. Most countries are in the process of drawing out a new social contract and institutionalising democracy. Nepal will have elections for a new Constituent Assembly (CA). It will only be the second time Bhutan will vote under a quasi-democratic constitution. This is the first time a civilian government in Pakistan would have completed a full tenure. And the Maldives will seek to get back on democratic track after a constitutional and political breach if elections are free and fair. Marginalised and excluded social groups are fiercely asserting themselves in some instances, like Nepal, while, in other cases, the conservative majoritarian backlash has trampled on minority rights, like Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

But the specific junctures at which these countries find themselves cannot force one but to ask – is a regional doctrine possible? Can it cope with the fluid political dynamics? And given India’s complicity in creating the domestic churning in these states (New Delhi was an active player in 1971 in Dhaka, in 2006 in Kathmandu, in 2008 in Male, and in the run-up to 2009 in Colombo — the consequences of which we see today), is it correct to see India as the virtuous power and others merely as troublesome immature allies? This is an attempt to search for an answer by looking at India’s experience in a country where it has been deeply enmeshed — Nepal.

Simplistic binary

In 2003, the Nepali Maoists were waging a war, and rallying against Indian “expansionism.” New Delhi was pumping in equipment and resources to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) in its anti-Maoist campaign.

But quietly, the Maoists had approached the Government of India through Professor S.D. Muni of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The then National Security Adviser (NSA), Brajesh Mishra, asked for a written commitment. The Maoists sent a letter, emphasising that they would not hurt Indian interests. Indian intelligence agencies then established links with the Maoist leaders. The Maoists told India they would accept a multiparty system. India constantly emphasised that the giving up of violence, accepting democracy, and sensitivity to Delhi’s security interests were non-negotiable points.

The conversation had major implications when the king took over in a coup in 2005. The Maoists now pushed for an alliance with the democratic parties, and asked for India’s support. Indian facilitation enabled the two to come together. A war ended, democracy was restored, the monarchy abolished, the Maoists and Naxalites were delinked, and the conflict’s spillover effect to India ceased. If one had gone by the public posture, the Maoists were an “anti-India” force. If India had not engaged with them, and adopted a black and white prism, would Nepal be at peace today? Which force, in contexts where there is a huge gap between public rhetoric and actual political line, and where positions rapidly evolve, is pro- or anti-India? Who judges it, and how?

Fast forward to 2009. India supported the Nepal Army chief, when Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda sought to dismiss him. Prachanda resigned, and stepped up the rhetoric against Indian “intervention.” India, led by a particularly aggressive ambassador in Kathmandu, invested enormous political capital in keeping the Maoists out of power, despite the former rebels being the biggest party in Parliament.

New Delhi’s bottom line was clear. Unless the Maoists gave up their army, who were in cantonments under U.N.-supervision as a part of a peace process, they would not be allowed to come back to power. The Maoists reached out to India with a one-point message. “Once we are back in power, we will wrap up the peace process.” But the Indian “hard line” persisted, strengthening Maoist radicals who argued that aborting the revolution was a mistake.

New Delhi paid a high political price, and got a lesson in the limits of its power. India’s role generated resentment among a sizeable section of the Nepali public. The Maoists backed a leader of another left party, who was also in India’s bad books for engaging with the former rebels, as Prime Minister in February 2011. New Delhi was confronted, for the first time in years, by a government in Nepal which was not “friendly.” This forced New Delhi to recalibrate its policy; personnel change in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Research and Analysis Wing helped; and it did not block a Maoist Prime Minister coming to power in August 2011.

The Maoists too had to give up their anti-India rhetoric and recognised the benefits of being on Delhi’s good side, but India too had to live with the fact that the former rebels cooperated on the peace process only after returning to power. Renewed engagement worked, and as seen in a recent conclave, the Maoists have now fully embraced democracy, and given up violence and revolutionary goals.

The point here is that as “realistic” and macho a prescription of “punishing” seemingly hostile forces sounds, it ignores the point that forces which are “anti-India” may have sizeable domestic bases. It blurs the line between forces critical of a set of Indian policies with those who actively damage Indian interests and places them under a common category. It awards excessive powers to bureaucrats on the ground who may send cables back home declaring who is pro- or anti-India without adequate basis and get away in the absence of close political supervision. It discounts the benefits of a policy of engagement rather than isolation to realign incentives. And it presumes that only neighbours need India, and India can afford to turn away when a neighbouring regime is not completely pliant.

Intention or capacity

On May 27, 2012, India decided to stay out as Nepali forces fought over federalism as the CA’s tenure was about to expire. The new republic’s president and conservative forces asked Delhi to tell the Maoists and Madhesis to give up the demand for federalism “for now.” Federal forces asked India to convince the Opposition to accept their model of state restructuring. If New Delhi had invested all its might to push one side or the other, Nepal may have had a constitution. But it did not, for it concluded that such a statute will not have the buy-in of a large segment of the population. It had the capacity but it did not have the intent to get involved in a debate which had divided Nepali society sharply.

New Delhi’s diplomatic, intelligence, military and political arsenal will continue to expand. But a deeper issue that policymakers have to grapple with is whether to use the leverage they do possess, at what moments, and its implications. Should New Delhi let domestic political processes play out in neighbouring countries to ensure a more sustainable outcome? Does India want to remain an active domestic political player in South Asian countries and live with its attendant consequences, or is it willing to do business with whoever is in power as long as its core interests are protected? Does the Indian state’s imagination, and interests, allow it to intervene decisively to shape human rights debates? And in a fragile post-conflict setting like Nepal which would shake up the leadership and structure of the country’s two most powerful forces, the Maoists and Nepal Army, which are friendly with India at the moment, for war crimes?

A regional doctrine may be a good idea. But specific experiences show this cannot be based on a shallow reading of who is friend and foe. Nor can a norm-based regime be created unless India radically overhauls its own internal apparatus, imagination and interests, and has the appetite to get further enmeshed in messy neighbourhood transitions.

India has been pursuing an ambitious regional doctrine, but it has often failed because of a shallow reading of who its friends and foes are