Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

In a new South Asia, Delhi cannot stick to its old ways

Unlike during the British Raj, India is no longer the regional hegemon. It cannot bully or cajole its smaller neighbours and the sooner it recognises this, the better

Has India lost the Subcontinent? The lament on “losing” South Asia becomes louder when “negative” (from Delhi’s perspective) developments — for example, the Maldives’ recent demand that India withdraw its military presence — occur in the region. India’s South Asia debate, unfortunately, is sentimental, self-referential and disconnected from the changing regional reality.

The hawks are upset that our neighbours dare to challenge India’s presumed primacy in the region. The doves think it is all Delhi’s fault that our neighbours turn against India. The former want Delhi to be “tougher”, and the latter want Delhi to be “nicer” to the neighbours. Neither tough nor nice policies will address India’s regional challenges, which are deeply structural. Several internal, regional, and external factors shape the South Asian dissonance.

The notion that Delhi is losing South Asia is rooted in India’s collective nostalgia for the legacy of the British Raj, which integrated the Subcontinent into a powerful geopolitical entity, established regional hegemony, and turned the neighbouring territories into protectorates and buffers. That world is long gone, along with the British departure from the Subcontinent.


The Subcontinent’s Partition on religious lines sundered its unity, created new sovereignties, and left unresolved boundary and territorial disputes that continue to hobble the region. Exalted visions of regional cooperation and an appeal to shared civilisation and history can’t overcome the bitter and enduring legacies of Partition.

Pakistan sees the Kashmir question as the unfinished agenda of Partition and is not willing to put it aside — even temporarily — to develop a limited but positive engagement with India and facilitate South Asian regional integration under the auspices of SAARC.

Festive offer

The political partition of the Subcontinent was reinforced by an economic partition driven by the developmental choices made by India and its neighbours in favour of autarky. Increasing securitisation of the borders turned them into commercial barriers. Since the turn of the 1990s, when the region turned to globalisation, regional economic cooperation has certainly grown, even if the pace and intensity are way below potential.

With one exception. Pakistan is not ready for economic cooperation with India; its incessant talk on geo-economics does not include commercial engagement with India. Nawaz Sharif, who is expected to become the prime minister again in the elections scheduled for February, does talk about changing this dynamic. It is unclear if General Asim Munir will let him walk the talk.


The political deference of the regional elites to Delhi, inherited from the days of the Raj, lingered for a few years. Smaller neighbours soon figured that independent India was not the British Raj — which was an extension of the world’s dominant power — and that they had room to play with or against Delhi. India might be big, but it can’t simply will their policies in Delhi’s preferred direction. They have an agency of their own. India can neither bully them into submission nor sweet talk them into acquiescence in the name of shared identity and culture.

India’s regional visions might sound good in Delhi but are often seen in the neighbourhood as a cover for pursuing regional hegemony. The RSS version of “Akhand Bharat” or “Greater India” or the liberal version of an integrated Subcontinent are both viewed with deep suspicion. The neighbouring elites see a fundamental contradiction between a regional order led by India and their national sovereignties.

Much like Delhi’s domestic discourse that twists itself into knots over the relationship with a much stronger power like Washington, the debate on India often turns surreal in the neighbourhood. India, one of the world’s largest nations, took over a decade to overcome the fear that signing a simple logistics pact (LEMOA) with the US meant “offering military bases” to Washington. Can you blame the tiny Maldives for worrying about the impact of military cooperation with India on its sovereignty?


Whether it wants or not, India looms large in the domestic politics of our neighbourhood. If one competing faction of the neighbourhood elite wants India to intervene on its behalf in the domestic political struggles, the other faction denounces India’s interventionism as hegemonic. Those neighbouring elites who seek a sensible relationship with India are accused of compromising national sovereignty.

The same party and the same leader can adopt both positions at different times. Recall that Imran Khan attacked Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif for his presumed warmth towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His slogan in the 2018 elections was “Modi ka jo yaar hai, woh gaddaar hai” (he, who is a friend of Modi, is a traitor to Pakistan).

As PM, Imran changed his tune. In the run-up to the 2019 Indian general election, he stated that Modi was Pakistan’s best bet in resolving the Kashmir question and hoped that he would be reelected. That hope was shattered with the Pulwama terror attack and India’s Balakot response.

Finally, the idea that India, like the Raj, could keep the Subcontinent as an exclusive sphere of influence was an illusion. A partitioned India, which never could match the power of the Raj, had little chance of preserving the old order. Pakistan turned to the US and China to balance India. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan turned the north-western subcontinent into a theatre for proxy war among the Western powers, the Middle Eastern states, Russia, and China. The consequences of that war have brought mayhem to the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan and transformed the geopolitical landscape of the Subcontinent.

India is right to be wary about the dramatic expansion of China’s economic and military influence in the Subcontinent. But it can’t stop the world’s second-largest economic and military power from being a powerful actor in the region. As Western presence declines in the Subcontinent, the strategic character of the Chinese salience in South Asia — economic, military and technological — will only grow in the coming years and present even more daunting challenges to India.


China is not the only external power gaining ground in South Asia. The influence of the Middle East — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates — is rising amidst their growing economic and military capabilities.

Even as the Subcontinent’s international relations are changing significantly, two of its external frontiers are under great stress. In the west, the conflict between the Taliban and the Pakistan army is sharpening. In the east, the ethnic armed groups and pro-democracy forces have joined hands to seriously challenge the Burmese army’s control of its vast northern territories.


Together, these developments point to the emergence of a Subcontinent very different from the one we inherited in the middle of the 20th century. “Regions” are not static; their geographic shape, political structure, and economic orientation evolve over time. “South Asia” is no exception.

The real question, then, is not about India “losing South Asia” but finding ways to gain ground in a changing region. India has enough capabilities to not only preserve its interests, but also expand its influence in its neighbourhood. To do that effectively, though, Delhi must discard the obsession with the old South Asia.


The writer is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 13:44 IST
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