Remembering Inder Kumar Gujral – and his elevated vision for India’s South Asian neighbourhood

Neighbourhood first has been a key principle of India’s foreign policy for some time. This is born out of a realisation that though the Indian subcontinent is divided into several independent and sovereign states, India as by far the largest and most powerful country in the region cannot but have a security perspective that encompasses the entire subcontinent.

Its borders with neighbours can serve as “connectors” linking India with a larger landscape beyond the subcontinent. These borders may, in different circumstances, become transmission belts for security threats such as cross-border terrorism, contraband trade or drug trafficking. The latter situation may end up creating a perception of a hostile environment beyond our borders and hence a sense of siege.

An integrated regional economy transcending borders where a dynamic Indian economy becomes an engine of growth for the entire neighbourhood, where a free flow of goods, ideas and peoples becomes a reality, enabling the people of the subcontinent to celebrate their shared history and deep cultural affinities, is the counterpoint and more elevating vision. There has been a constant tension between these two opposing impulses in India’s foreign policy.

There is no doubt that for India to aspire to a larger regional and global role it is the more elevating vision which must prevail. This has been articulated by successive Indian leaders. Inder Kumar Gujral, one of India’s most cerebral and far sighted external affairs ministers and later prime minister, whose 100th birth anniversary falls today, understood the over-riding challenge of the neighbourhood most clearly.

The “Gujral Doctrine” enunciated in September 1996, sought to put in place key principles which must guide relations among states of South Asia. These are that no South Asian country will allow its territory to be used against the interests of another country of the region; that none will interfere in the internal affairs of another; that all South Asian countries must respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; and that they will settle disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations.

For India specifically, Gujral also declared that it “does not ask for reciprocity but gives all it can in good faith and trust”. These principles continue to be relevant for India’s neighbourhood policy.

There is no doubt that the challenges which India must deal with in its neighbourhood have become more complex and even threatening compared to two decades ago.  China’s footprint in the subcontinent has expanded and India’s heightened security concerns over terrorism have led to a revival of a siege mentality. The logic of improved connectivity within the subcontinent is often trumped by heightened security concerns.

The current slowdown in the Indian economy has meant that there is less willingness to further open the Indian market to our neighbours. Development cooperation as an instrument of India’s neighbourhood policy is weakened by stringency of resources and the undeniable fact that India is unable to match the scale of resources China is able to deploy in our neighbourhood to win influence.

There is little doubt that in an age of shifting geopolitics and altered balance of power India will need to restrategise its neighbourhood policy. There may be a need to redeploy scarce resources available from more distant development partners such as in Africa or Latin America to the subcontinent. Connectivity must be pursued with greater vigour while security concerns are addressed through cost effective, efficient and reliable technological measures which are in use in other parts of the world.

India should become the transit country of choice for all our neighbours by extending national treatment on our transport network and at our ports. Above all, “neighbourhood first” must be anchored in sustained engagement at all levels of the political and people to people levels, building upon the deep cultural affinities which are unique to India’s relations with its neighbours.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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