South Asian strategic perspectives

South Asian strategic perspectives

 “We must preserve strategic autonomy in decision-making processes, and resist the temptation of rich rewards gained by becoming a tool in the great games of big powers in the pursuit of their imperial ambitions”, cautioned former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently, in his address to the Punjab University in Chandigarh, India.

Singh also stated that “a dangerous and false binary that we have to choose between freedom and development” is surfacing in Indian political discourse, which must be firmly rejected. He also called for the rejection of “divisive policies and politics” and said that atrocities against minorities and Dalits were increasing in the country and such incidents, if unchecked, could harm India’s democracy. Wise words, indeed, from a two-term prime minster of India, who undoubtedly has the good of India at heart, and also the courage of his convictions to advocate a course correction.

While prime minister, Singh was committed to the normalization of India-Pakistan relations. Unfortunately, this did not work out during his term in office. A key reason for this was the unwillingness of the Congress leadership to invest its political capital in this cause. Since then, relations between the countries have continued to reach new lows. Exchange of heavy fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir and the Working Boundary has become a routine occurrence. Diplomatic relations are tense, war rhetoric high, and India and Pakistan are breaking new ground in acquiring and developing even more lethal nuclear and missile-delivery systems. Hopes for a breakthrough in serious and substantive diplomatic engagement between the two adversarial nuclear powers have dwindled.

It appears that the US tilt toward India, as also underscored in its Afghanistan and South Asia strategy, is being construed by New Delhi as a carte blanche to assert its hegemony in the Indian Ocean region.

Salman Bashir

While Pakistan has signaled its readiness to commence a process of normalization, India continues to stonewall. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has categorically rejected the convening of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad. This could have provided an opportunity to resume the multiple processes that were being worked on for South Asia’s regional economic integration, and a chance for India and Pakistan to unlock their bilateral relations in a comprehensive manner.

The stridency in the Indian position could be attributed to the RSS’s Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” ideology to which Singh has made oblique reference, and the exigencies of practicing a populist, hypernationalist domestic political agenda. It is also true that the prevailing global and regional strategic impulses are influencing India’s behavior. It appears that the US tilt toward India, as also underscored in its Afghanistan and South Asia strategy, is being construed by New Delhi as a carte blanche to assert its hegemony in the Indian Ocean region.

The US Indo-Pacific policy posture does confer a certain role on India in terms of the containment of China. But for New Delhi, it is not China but Pakistan that is the issue. India actively seeks the support of the US and the West to isolate Pakistan. It would seem that the current global posturing by major powers have indirectly emboldened India to embark on a disastrous course. A new variant of the cold war might descend on South Asia as the bilateral and regional scenarios increasingly correspond to the revival of global competition and confrontation.

India is too big and too diverse to fit as a “tool” in “great games” of major powers in pursuit of their “imperial ambitions.” But Singh’s advice might not register well with the hawks in New Delhi. It is evident to any objective observer that the US and the West, in fact, do not want any further exacerbation of tensions in South Asia. They are concerned but a bit too respectful towards India to give explicit advice.

Modi and his team of strategists have wrongly read the trend lines of global politics. India must heed the advice of its previous prime minister, who also said “equality, freedom and fraternity are the three values that constitute the life breath of democracy – its very essence”.

– Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the foreign secretary of Pakistan and as the high commissioner of Pakistan to India. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb

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