By Tridivesh Singh Maini
NEW DEHLI—Again and again, India has failed to mend relations with its neighbors due to the failure of its leaders to rise up against political pressure.
Its inability to exploit the personal chemistry between former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resolve the dispute over Kashmir, and more recently, Bangladeshi Premier Sheikh Hasina's unsuccessful attempts to cement a cordial relationship with India both illustrate the types of political flops that have characterized Indian diplomacy in the region. For example, India embarrassed Bangladesh when its West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to accompany Singh to Bangladesh last September to protest the now-scrapped Teesta water treaty, which Banerjee claims unfairly barters away the interests of her state.
As a result of these failures, Indian non-state actors have become crucial in forging ties with the outside world. The country's economic progress and the growing popularity of its culture have enhanced the confidence of national business community and organizations such as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM). These have stepped in for the government and taken on the leading role in both aggressively selling the country and building bridges with its neighbors. While the Indian government has been facilitating such initiatives, these non-state actors function without the domestic political pressures and can therefore more effectively promote neighborly relations and India’s soft power.
Large media organizations like The Times Group now even contribute to harmonizing India’s external relations. In 2010, the two largest newspapers in India and Pakistan, The Times of India and Jang, launched a collaborative project called "Aman Ki Asha." Its title combines the Urdu word for peace, “Aman,” with the Hindi word for hope, “Asha,” making the bilingual project, “Hope for Peace."
"Aman Ki Asha” was perceived as a complement to a political dialogue with Pakistan initiated by India's governing party United Progressive Alliance after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But by regularly hosting seminars and dialogues, the project has played an even more important role in bringing together politicians and economists from both sides. More recently, The Times Group and Bangladesh's biggest daily Pratham Alo collaborated to found "Maitree Bandhan," which translated from Bengali into English means “a lasting bond of friendship.” This collaboration works along similar lines as the project Aman Ki Asha and promotes friendly ties with Pakistan.
"Maitree Badhan," which organizes joint cultural performances, aims to enhance people-to-people contact and promote commercial ties between both countries. The project began with a cultural festival that featured both well-known Bangladeshi artists, such as Ferdous Ara and Runa Laila, and Indian artists, such as Pankaj Udhas and Usha Uthup, on common stages in Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai from February 23 to 29. Like "Aman Ki Asha," it will facilitate meetings between business leaders from both countries by organizing a trade meeting between business chambers. In addition, “Maitree Bandhan” will develop student exchange programs and strategic summits that enable people from both countries to interact. With a lack of interaction between citizens across national borders, many Bangladeshi and Pakistani citizens have limited knowledge about India. And in India, 24 hour TV focuses only on potential security threats from its neighbors. Projects like Maitree Badhan are especially important because they come at a time when India’s bilateral relationship with Bangladesh is deteriorating. The primary reason for the loss of momentum is that India's half-hearted responses to Bangladesh's overtures have angered many Bangladeshis.
The growing realization among non-state actors that India needs good relations with its South Asian neighbors augurs well for the region and its growing importance in global politics. When engagement is not state driven, but people driven, it has a better chance of improving ties between the country and its neighbors. India should use its soft power more effectively through enhancing contact with states in the region—commercially, culturally, and politically. If India’s government can’t get it done directly, then it should support the endeavors of its private citizens by easing up visa processes for nationals from neighboring countries, without expecting reciprocity. Beyond that, it is also imperative to remove national restrictions on the distribution of newspapers and the broadcasting of TV channels of India’s neighboring states, beginning with Bangladesh and Pakistan, so that the ordinary Indian is exposed to cultural realities of these countries and a mutual exchange of information can take place. What is required is a free flow of goods, people, and ideas. India needs to focus on the apt and timely usage of “soft power” led by non-state actors to improve its relations with its neighboring countries.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an associate fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
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