From Sri Lanka to Maldives, India must tread cautiously and softly

Narendra Modi. Photograph:( Reuters )

Delhi, India Dec 06, 2018, 10.51 AM (IST) Pushpesh Pant

The elections to state legislatures in India have for the past few months engrossed the specialist analysts and lay audience alike. The results, it is widely believed, will indicate which way the political wind is blowing. This has distracted us from taking note of significant developments in the neighbourhood. It’s time that we turn our gaze outwards and take stalk of the strategic situation in the flux.

In the Maldives and in Sri Lanka the situation appears to have changed in favour of India. In the atoll island it was the presidential elections that threw out the incumbent who had adopted a hostile posture towards India throughout his tenure and in Sri Lanka the country’s Supreme Court stepped in to resolve - at least for the moment- a constitutional crisis and a coup of sorts to instal Mahinda Rajapaksa was nipped in the bud. In both cases, the change in circumstances was not a result of Indian diplomatic exertions or efforts to tilt the balance in its favour.

No one in his right mind can ever suggest that India should interfere in the internal affairs of a neighbour but the fact is that it can not remain indifferent to continued strife and political instability in its immediate neighbourhood. 

Nor can it turn a blind eye to Chinese machinations to encircle India and spread misinformation about India. Both in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the Chinese have tried to upstage and oust India from infrastructural projects and replace it as the leading strategic partner in economic and technical sphere. 

Regime change in Male and restoration of status quo in Colombo had naturally aroused hopes that the balance was now tilting in favour of India. Now, it seems that the rejoicing was hasty. Sri Lanka continues to be under strong pressure to honour its ‘contractual commitment’ to PRC and Maldives too has lost no time in signalling that it will maintain friendly equidistance between India and China. We have to be patient with Sri Lanka; the most important thing is not to let our policy remain a hostage to Dravidian party politics in Tamil Nadu. The country has already paid a heavy price for this folly.

The challenges are far more complex in Nepal where India has allowed the ground to steadily slip from under its feet. Not only is the present government proud of flaunting its proximity to Beijing it doesn’t miss an opportunity to embarrass Indians. Outstanding disputes may be resolved-more like brushed under the carpet at the time of a state visit- but are likely to resurface in a more twisted form soon enough.

As we scan the horizons in the Indian Ocean with swelling pride to carve a role in Indo-Pacific region we can ill afford to neglect this landlocked perpetually disgruntled prickly neighbour. Neither juiciest carrots nor hard talk seem to make the slightest difference. 

To our mind, there is certainly an improvement in the milieu but Indians will have to tread gently and talk little very softly in the coming months to build broken bridges. It is imperative to have a stick around but to keep it out of sight!

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Pushpesh Pant

Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic and historian.

Story highlights

Both in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the Chinese have tried to upstage and oust India from infrastructural projects and replace it as the leading strategic partner in economic and technical sphere.