In the aftermath of Pakistan's humiliating withdrawal from Kargil, a colleague and I visited Washington for discussions with the United States (US) State Department and other agencies on the situation in India's western neighbourhood.
A session was devoted to Iran. While US officials were hopeful that the Vilayat-e-Faqih, Iran's foundational clerical system's popularity may be declining, that was not our assessment. It is no secret that, except during Barack Obama's presidency, all US administrations have worked diligently for regime change in Iran but without success. Is it ever wise, especially in the long-term, to seek regime change in another State to secure national interest and, if so, for how long can such interests be thus secured?
Iran is not the only country where the US has sought to destabilise hostile governments through intensive intervention in domestic politics. Indeed, US interference in the internal affairs of many countries is taken as a fact of international relations even if it may be exaggerated in many cases. What is true for perceptions about the US globally are similar for India regionally. The political and security elites of many of India's immediate neighbours assume Indian interference, at least on occasion, in their domestic politics as a fact of their political life.
What is presumed about India's role in these neighbouring countries is largely the product of misperceptions, if not myths. The meetings of Indian diplomats and officials in most cases designed to seek information — an entirely legitimate exercise — are given extraneous meanings. Stray comments are construed as part of devious policy. Consequently, India's assertions of political neutrality are always discounted.
As India is presumed to be an active and interventionist player, political groups and actors in neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and, even at times, in Afghanistan, among others, often seek Indian assistance of various kinds to promote their interests. Sometimes they seek to flaunt their proximity to India and its representatives. Others do the opposite. They take hostile positions against India, complaining of its partisan attitudes and, in this process, stoke national sentiments often couched in stridently anti-Indian terms. This is especially true when territorial differences emerge between India and another country as was witnessed in Nepal last year.
It cannot be claimed that India has maintained a policy of strict neutrality over the past seven decades in matters of its neighbours. Certainly, it has, like any other State, sought to safeguard its interests, especially when political actors have deliberately sought to align themselves with powers hostile to India.
This is best illustrated in the case of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen who deliberately and completely irrationally went on provoking India in every possible way.
India has also had to take note and caution specific leaders of neighbouring states when they have adopted exclusionary domestic policies that have stoked resentments in India impacting on Indian politics. In both these situations, India has traditionally moved cautiously.
The Yameen case was noteworthy for it showcased Chinese aspirations to become a major factor in the national lives of India's immediate neighbours. Over the past few years, China's actions and policies all through South Asia and also in India's maritime neighbourhood, including in the Indian Ocean island countries, have raised the need to give deep consideration to India's approach to its neighbours.
Naturally, Pakistan is a case apart because of the nature of the bilateral relationship and the increasing consolidation of its nexus with China.
That Chinese moves in India's neighbouring countries significantly impact Indian interests is an obvious reality. It is also a reality that some neighbours attempt to leverage an engagement with China to seek, if nothing else, better terms with India in critical areas.
How should India deal with its neighbours in the light of these considerations which will only increase in future? Should it clearly articulate red lines in different spheres with each country? To do so openly would invite charges of disrespect of the sovereignty of neighbours. Perhaps the way would be to subtly make it known that what India will never accept is the physical presence of a hostile foreign power in a manner that would adversely impact its security especially in a case of open borders. If the political class of neighbouring countries accepts this as a starting proposition, it would make Indian indifference to their internal politics far easier.
The case of security concerns makes for easier conviction than that of economic and commercial interests. It is here that India has made it known to the neighbours since IK Gujral was prime minister that it wants them to be participants in India's growth journey. But that was before China loomed large in South Asia and made its push in terms of connectivity and commerce.
Now Narendra Modi has compellingly reiterated the same policy. Despite the Chinese ingress, there are compelling factors for India's neighbours to link up with the Indian economy; but will they recognise this reality?
India must always be wary of adopting interventionist policies in the neighbourhood. Equally, reflexive anti-Indian sentiment among neighbours will always damage their national interest and the personal political interest of their leaders.
Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat. The views expressed are personal
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.