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Faulty approach to the neighbourhood

That old big picture problem


The appointment of a new envoy to Myanmar, in light of our delicate relations with that nation, says much about our faulty approach to the neighbourhood, writes Jyoti Malhotra.

There isn't very much that stands in the way of Gopalkrishna Gandhi from becoming India's next ambassador to Myanmar, but if he is named it will be proof, if proof were needed, that it helps to be a double whammy - in this case, the grandson of both Mahatma Gandhi as well as C Rajagopalachari. With that kind of absentee references on your CV, what kind of 'mai ka laal' will dare stand up and say you're not suitable for the job?

This article isn't really about Mr Gandhi and whether the nature of his commanding personality is right for Yangon. After all, as governor of West Bengal, he did speak up after the killings by CPM cadres in Nandigram in West Bengal in 2007, a landmark event which significantly turned the masses against the Communist party.

Neither is this about why the Indian Foreign Service doesn't want outsiders to enter its charmed circle and whether Gopal Gandhi qualifies. After all, he has been a former IAS officer, although he has served as India's envoy to Sri Lanka, South Africa,Norway and headed the Nehru cultural centre in London. This is about the disarray in India's foreign policy, perhaps the last bastion standing in the Manmohan Singh government, and how the power of who knows whom and how well has begun to seriously affect hard-nosed strategy.

Gopal Gandhi, for example, is said to want the job because he knows the Myanmarese leader Aung San Suu Kyi well;perhaps he got to know her even better when he was secretary to former president K R Narayanan, whose wife, Usha, was Burmese. In fact, the influence of the Narayanans persuaded the Narasimha Rao government to award the Jawaharlal Nehru prize for peace and understanding to Suu Kyi in 1995 - an award that was highly contested at the time because India was beginning to make serious overtures towards the military-backed junta in Myanmar, which was very close to the Chinese.

However India plays the award today - a selfcongratulatory country has portrayed it as having had the guts to give it to Suu Kyi in difficult times - the fact is that it caused a huge setback to India's foreign policy when announced. The regime in Yangon wondered at the time whether India was being doublefaced and whether India secretly supported Suu Kyi. It took India a great deal of careful nurturing over several years to prove its credentials again with the Myanmarese, which later led to the visit of the second-most powerful general to Delhi in 2002, Gen Maung Aye, a veritable diplomatic coup.

It is this careful balancing act that Delhi has displayed now for nearly 20 years in Myanmar - between the pro-Chinese military junta and prodemocracy forces as symbolised by Suu Kyi - that has been the backbone of India's foreign policy in Myanmar. China's rise has meant that it has consolidated its political and economic interests in all of South-East Asia, and especially Myanmar.

And India? By holding the generals' hands publicly, by showing that it is an honest broker that holds the interests of the people of Myanmar at heart, and the fact that it is the only other country (besides China) that has hung in there long enough, India's presence has created a space that has allowed the generals to experiment with a variety of relationships, such as with the UN, the Americans and even with Suu Kyi's folks.

Now Suu Kyi may have won her election with a resounding majority as well as a greater moral victory over the military regime, but China remains an incredible presence. Asia's most powerful country is building several oil and gas pipelines across Myanmar to connect to southern China and India is trying to undertake several energy projects at the same time.

Gandhi may mean very well, but if he's bored he would be much better suited to go elsewhere - perhaps Europe, or Scandinavia, or South America. India's neighbourhood is so incredibly complex and each country so different that there can be no place for nepotism in it.

Already, Delhi's relationships with Dhaka, Islamabad and the Maldives aren't in the best shape. India has persisted in refusing to address the problems around the Teesta waters agreement as well as failed to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement that it signed with Bangladesh over a yearand-half ago. Reports are that China is powering itself into the vacuum that Delhi wilfully created. Bangladesh goes to the polls this year and if Sheikh Hasina's Awami League party loses, then at least some of the blame must be laid at India's door. In the Maldives, India's abandonment of its only democratic leader, Mohamed Nasheed, has disrupted the power play in that island nation, allowing the Chinese easy entry. Meanwhile, with Pakistan, the familiar roller-coaster continues.

With elections due next year, it is time for the Manmohan Singh government to take charge. In a few months, the new foreign secretary will take over, but with lobbying having begun in right earnest for the job, it is unlikely that an embattled prime minister will think out of the box.

It is in these interstices of grey, where no one really seems in charge, that the chips will fall. Question is whether one of them has Gopal Gandhi's name written on it.

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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