India's regional diplomacy faltering

NEW DELHI - From Sri Lanka to Maldives to Bangladesh, India's relationship with its neighbours seems to have run into trouble.

The decision over the weekend by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pull out of the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka is seen by many to be a policy miscalculation which will hurt bilateral ties.

Dr Singh will miss the meeting of 52 nations taking place in India's backyard because of domestic opposition to Colombo's alleged failure to investigate war crimes against the Tamil minority.

Most saw little gain in the last-minute cancellation.

"The Prime Minister talks about the importance of neighbourhood and engagement and then takes a decision to boycott Chogm hosted by Sri Lanka which will have an impact on ties," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. Chogm is short for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

"In the short term, I would say neighbourhood policy is in shambles."

Other leaders, such as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, have said it is "more constructive to engage" Colombo and push it to investigate alleged war crimes in months leading to the end of the civil war in 2009.

Critics highlighted the Sri Lanka episode to say there is little focus on India's immediate neighbourhood.

The Congress-led government in its second term in power has been hobbled by domestic problems including corruption scandals and rising food prices. Foreign policy is seen to have taken a backseat.

Many countries see India as the big brother, because of its size and economic prowess, making it all the more necessary for deft diplomatic handling by India.

"The general lack of dynamism we have seen in functioning of government affects foreign policy," said former Indian foreign secretary Salman Haidar.

India is the dominant power in South Asia with Dr Singh often talking about engagement with neighbouring countries as one cornerstone of India's foreign policy.

But many point to a growing paralysis in India's regional diplomacy, from a failure to move forward on ties with countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, to struggling to improve strained ties with Pakistan. India is also struggling to help countries like the Maldives and Nepal strengthen democratic institutions.

With Pakistan, ties have moved backwards with the worst instances of cross-border firings in a decade along the Line of Control, the de facto border, and repeated violation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement.

Even a meeting between Dr Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in September failed to achieve anything.

With Bangladesh, an agreement to demarcate the border and another to share the waters of the Teesta river, which flows in both countries, have been held up for months, thanks to opposition from Ms Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal state.

Her state borders Bangladesh, and she would have to implement both agreements.

On the other hand, the Maldives is heading for a political crisis with a third attempt to hold elections postponed on Sunday by the Supreme Court due to protests by a candidate.

India has been talking to all the political parties. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh even visited the Maldives last month to keep the second round of polling on track but New Delhi's efforts have so far failed.

Indian diplomacy has not been without successes. India is seen to have used its diplomatic weight effectively in resolving a three-week stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Depsang valley in the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir where both sides have competing claims.

Both countries also signed an agreement to better manage the border between the two.

Some think India will regain its diplomatic clout after polls next year when a government with a fresh mandate is at the helm.

"No doubt India is the dominant power in South Asia. In the long run, it can be reactivated with stronger leadership and greater clarity on where national interests lie," said Mr Mansingh.

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