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India’s Neighborhood Watch

NEW DELHI – Like monsoon flurries, recent events in the Indian subcontinent have sent conflicting signals. Has Indian diplomacy finally awakened after its long summer siesta, or is this just an illusion?

In late July, after lower-level ministerial officials from India and Pakistan had prepared the ground for their respective foreign ministers to meet, the two finally did so, in New Delhi, on July 26 and 27. This was remarkable in itself, given the bomb blasts just a fortnight earlier in Mumbai – a terrorist attack that claimed 26 lives and left 130 people injured. Even more remarkably, given many Indians’ suspicions that that the attack was, in some way, authored in Pakistan, there were no mutually accusatory diplomatic blasts.

Instead, the two foreign ministers met on schedule and agreed to meet again, after issuing an encouragingly meaningful joint statement, which spoke of enhancing trade and implementing more confidence-building measures. For other neighboring countries, that may sound humdrum; for India and Pakistan, merely maintaining a structure for dialogue counts as notable progress.

But farther to India’s west, in Afghanistan, things are far grimmer. Afghanistan is witnessing a surge of violence accompanying the beginning of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. Besides the recent deaths of 30 American soldiers when their helicopter was downed, seven top Afghan officials – including President Hamid Karzai’s step-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a key power broker among the Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest tribe, and Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the influential mayor of Kandahar – have been assassinated in the last three months.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the atmosphere in Afghanistan would worsen. The recently concluded trilateral meeting between Afghanistan, the US, and Pakistan, which called for engaging the Afghan Taliban to find a political solution to the country’s troubles, turned out to be largely a pro forma exercise. Moreover, President Karzai now faces a parliamentary crisis, with his cabinet still not complete.

There are also mounting financial problems. The International Monetary Fund has not sent any payments to the Afghan central bank in recent months, supposedly because of corruption scandals.

India, too, has had to contend with its own share of scandals. After engulfing the country’s entire mobile-telephone sector (the fraudulent sale of frequencies may have cost Indian taxpayers $39 billion), massive corruption scandals are now hitting the iron-ore mining industry. And, of course, there remains a lingering stench from the scandalous mismanagement of last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Accusatory fingers are now being pointed at the highest and richest people in the land. Separate reports, by a former Supreme Court justice and current ombudsman, and by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, list many acts of commission and omission, with “billions of dollars in royalty, tax, and other payments” having been misappropriated and huge “bribes paid” in the iron-ore cases. Likewise, “Mafia-type operations” are becoming “routine practice” in India’s southern state of Karnataka.

These are serious allegations, and they have crippled decision-making within Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party-led government. But, to give the government its due, Bangladesh last month conferred its highest official award, the “Bangladesh Swadhinata Sanmanona,” on the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for her outstanding contribution to Bangladesh’s 1971 “Liberation War,” when it achieved independence from Pakistan. President Zillur Rahman told Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi that her mother-in-law “influenced the course of history and the fate of generations.” Given the ambivalence that has marked the two countries’ relations, there is real hope of a new dawn in bilateral ties.

India’s potential for promoting growth and stability in South Asia was also emphasized by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spent three fruitful days in India last month. In a major speech in Chennai, she declared that “Asia’s decisions will be shaped by India,” whose “markets will play a major role in South East Asia, Central Asia, and beyond,” and called on India “to play a role in the democratic transition in the Middle East.”

Clinton also touched upon an issue that unites all Indians: the desire for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The US would support India’s aspirations, Clinton declared, but with three caveats: “a major and defining role in Myanmar,” meaning that India must push the ruling generals towards democratic transition; India’s use of its “good offices” to “convince Iran about nuclear proliferation”; and an Indian offer of “all help needed to Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives” in joining India as thriving emerging markets.

In the South Asian subcontinent, crammed as it is with deeply troubled countries, India’s role in promoting stability and prosperity is essential. But can India fulfill that agenda? The US has given India an important and useful test, and its ambitions for a global role commensurate with its size and growth prospects will depend on its ability to influence its own neighborhood for the better.