It is welcome that the Indian Prime Minister is visiting countries in the Indian Ocean who are extremely close, both geographically and ethnically to India. Aside from centuries-old relationships with such countries in the Indian Ocean, a significant number of Indians went over there and settled there. There is a huge Indian Diaspora in these countries. Such a population composition makes for both good and sometimes tricky relations.
The fact that we have a huge Tamil population in Sri Lanka has embittered relations between India and Sri Lanka for decades. The same situation used to apply to Mauritius, where the Indian population and the non-Indian population used to compete for political power and had led to tensions. Of course, now the Indian government has been tackling such issues with deftness and sensitivity.
Un-fortunately in the last few decades, India has not given sufficient attention to external relations. There might have been good reasons for such neglect. But there has been a negative impact due to this neglect. It is good that the Modi Government is perhaps rectifying this neglect. Constant contact and communications through diplomacy makes for better relations. Our neighbors were upset at being ignored. Our neglect was misconstrued as arrogance and callousness.
The common strand in India‘s relationship with the Indian Oceana countries is that they are geographically close to India and there are also common cultural symbols. Yet, there has always been an attempt by Super powers to draw these countries in the Indian Ocean into their spheres of influence. When the world had two super-powers, namely the USA and Russia, the competence was intense. After the fall of Russia, the competition and interest was less. But now China wants to make its presence felt.
The Chinese style is to go the economics route. They promise projects and build them and then either hand them at low prices or at long term loans or even gift them outright. The Chinese have been doing this in the Indian Ocean and across Africa. It has not been a clear success. There have been reverses. Yet, the message is that India must also become pro-active or we will lose any influence over our immediate oceanic neighbors.
China has both economic strength and also the military capability to project it’s naval and aviation strength. This has made India’s task very difficult. Not only does India have to contend with the internal politics of such countries, but India also has to carefully counter China’s moves. America had made a strategic withdrawal from Asia and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, in these 3 countries India faces China as a direct rival. .
China has tried to win over these countries by gifting huge projects. For China, trying to make friends with Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka is not costly. A little investment goes a long way. Naturally, all these countries s have some issues with India.
- Prime Minister Modi has made an excellent move by visiting all neighboring countries. They have been neglected over the last 15 years. These visits will themselves strengthen India’s presence. It means that other rival nations have to put more efforts and it will be more costly for them.
- By giving emphasis to countries where there is a large Indian Diaspora, India strengthens links with such countries. Since all these countries are democratic, India has to be careful not to arouse antagonisms in non-Indian peoples.
- Indian Soft-power can play a major role in winning over Indian Ocean countries. Here the Chinese or any other country is no match since we have some inherent advantages.
India has immense Soft power. Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion.. In 2012, Nye explained that soft power means that ,
“The best propaganda is not propaganda”, further explaining that during the Information Age, “credibility is the scarcest resource“. Nye further says “power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes you want. There are several ways one can achieve this: you can coerce them with threats; you can induce them with payments; or you can attract and co-opt them to want what you want. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government must also take the Indian opposition parties into confidence. Foreign policy is for the nation and not any one country. There should be more collaboration amongst all political parties, so that there is continuity in our foreign policy.
The visits of Prime Minister Modi are a good start. We need a strong and dynamic foreign service to strengthen our diplomacy. Good ideas have to be implemented.
The achievements of the government in foreign policy must be projected as the achievements of the country and not of a political party or individual. Only then, there will be a nurturing of permanent interests of India. We need to remember Lord Palmerstone’s words ” Nations have no permanent friends. Only permanent interests ‘.