The idea that India is losing clout in the neighbourhood has recently become a special cause for anxiety among Delhi’s commentariat.
The divisions in the foreign policy elite only mirrored the fracture already evident in the political class. During the campaign for the 1977 general elections, the opposition Janata Party criticised Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for her costly pursuit of regional hegemony in South Asia and promised to build good neighbourly relations. Prime Minister Morarji Desai and his foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did bring about some important correctives. But it did not take long for them to face the same criticism as Indira Gandhi. No government since then has escaped the charge of mishandling the neighbours.
The notion of regional primacy certainly persisted in the Nehru era — recall the three security treaties that the first prime minister signed with Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal during 1949-50. The newly-formed Ministry of External Affairs, the legatee of the Foreign and Political Department of the Raj, certainly retained some of the viceregal style of political agents in the neighbourhood. But beyond the region, Nehru had put India on a different diplomatic track that emphasised sovereign equality among nations.
There are no easy answers to the regional difficulties that trouble all governments in Delhi. The source of the problem lies in the deeply interconnected nature of South Asian societies administered by multiple sovereigns. Contrary to the prevailing belief, India’s domestic politics always had an impact on our regional policy. The same is true of our neighbours, whose domestic politics impact their engagement with India.
There is no happy end-state in India’s relations with its neighbours. It will always be about carefully managing the inevitable difficulties that arise. Timely responses to emerging problems, preventing small issues from becoming big, and aligning Delhi’s regional economic policy with India’s natural geographic advantages are some important elements of any successful management of India’s perennial neighbourhood challenges.