The isolation risk

It is a truism of international relations that rising powers, such as India, should seek out friends and allies on their periphery and maintain relations further afield that are of long-term benefit to their economic rise. Naturally, maintaining internal solidarity is also of importance — and internal politics should, by and large, not be allowed to spill out into foreign policy stances and actions that do not benefit the national interest viewed most broadly. Unfortunately, India does not seem to be following this precept of late as carefully as it should.


For example, amid the widespread protests over the combination of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Act amendment, some implications need to be borne in mind for India’s international relations. Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been India’s most stalwart partner in the neighbourhood. Co-operation on security and extremism reached new heights, and the economic relationship has also developed — although integration has not gone as far as it should. Yet Dhaka, quite understandably, wants to be left out of the burgeoning NRC crisis in India. It has been reported that, although public assurances have been conveyed to the Bangladesh government that the NRC is viewed as strictly an internal legal matter for India, there was some resistance to a joint official statement of this fact. This problem has been compounded by the citizenship amendment law, which implies in its text and motivation that Bangladesh is not a secular country. This is seen as deeply offensive in Bangladesh, which has had divisive discussions about its identity before reaffirming its constitutional secularism. All these issues could perhaps be overlooked if there were tangible returns coming to Dhaka from a pro-New Delhi policy. But on a gamut of issues, from the Teesta water-sharing onward, India has under-delivered to its neighbour. It would be unwise to alienate Bangladesh for short-term domestic political ends.


Domestic political concerns may have also played a part in India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. After all, previous free-trade agreements have been attacked by major political forces in India’s states and also within the ruling coalition. India pulling out at the last minute was a major diplomatic disruption that may well, unless reversed, have effects for years or perhaps decades to come. If it was done to satisfy immediate political concerns, that would be a serious miscalculation of the national interest. In any case, India must consider how far it can stretch the considerable international political capital it enjoys from years of restraint and its status as the largest liberal democracy. Recent actions, including the internet shutdown in Kashmir, have depleted that store of capital. The sharp growth slowdown means that India is a less attractive partner, and the actions taken against foreign companies operating on Indian soil, including changing the rules of the game at the last minute to benefit domestic players, reduce the number of advocates for New Delhi abroad. Now, the possibility of large detention camps for those identified under the NRC, which, thanks to the Citizenship Act, will be primarily of one religion — and the protests as well as the police’s harsh response against students in well-known institutions — have further hurt India’s international standing. Its position internationally is not so secure that it can afford to offend its friends.


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