The Centre for Public Policy Research organised its 17th edition of CPPR Quarterly Lecture Series on the topic ‘India and its Neighbourhood’ on August 22, 2020. The Quarterly Lecture Series, initiated in 2012, aims to provide insight into the sphere of socio-economic and political themes. The 17th edition was hosted online, featuring Dr TCA Raghavan, who retired from the Indian Foreign Service in December 2015 while he was the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan (2013–15). He is currently the Director-General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. The lecture sought to provide an overview of trends and geopolitics in our continental and maritime neighbourhood.

Dr Raghavan began with the consideration of how important it is to discuss foreign policy issues on wider platforms. He said that the process of foreign policy must emanate from different parts of India and not just be central to the MEA or the national capital. He furthered his case by giving examples of prominent scholars and public figures from Kerala, such as Krishna Menon or KM Panikkar, and highlighted their role in conceptualising Indian foreign policy.

Delving into the core definition of what compromises ‘our neighbourhood’, Dr Raghavan brought to light the two broad dimensions of continental and maritime neighbourhood and stressed how the conceptual understanding of the same takes one beyond the national boundaries, in seeing the bigger footprint of national interests.

The midst of the pandemic is an opportune time to reflect upon all that have been revealed thus far; as in Dr Raghavan’s words, “A crisis is an event that reveals reality as it exists” and COVID-19 is no less. The geopolitical churn that arises out of the present scenario provides a perfect opening to discuss India’s neighbourhood. By drawing our imagery to the subcontinent—with respect to the situation of China, the difficulties with Nepal, the conundrum of Indo-Pakistan relations, the further-West case of Afghanistan and Iran, and the maritime dimensions with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives—the prospect of consolidation of new power was brought into attention.

It was noted how the world was confronted with a very similar situation of fading global power back during 1989–1992—the period was symbolised with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin wall and the insurgency in Kashmir to name a few. The difference being that one of the superpowers was declining at that time, namely the USSR, while in today’s context China is coming up strong as the second hegemon visible in the near skyline.

Dr Raghavan structured his arguments in points, starting with the first one that our neighbourhood is a part of a wider regional and international framework, immensely impacting our bilateral relations with neighbours, and the misconception of a self-contained space must be done away with. Secondly, he turned to maritime neighbourhood to our East and West by drawing a contrast between the two—with the Arabian Sea littorals being characterised by great stress and unresolved issues, whereas the Bay of Bengal littorals offering a greater spread of cooperation (ASEAN, BIMSTEC)

Thirdly, the case of South Asia cooperation was brought up. “While the effectiveness of SAARC has been limited, its narrative value should not be underestimated,” said Dr Raghavan. It was highlighted how ASEAN falls short in being effective due to the contentions between India and Pakistan and also because issues pertaining to Afghanistan have not found a space in the forum.

Fourthly, India should look out for the emergence of China on becoming a great power, which poses conceptual fundamental issues for India as well as our neighbours. From foreign policy perspective, it is better that India puts big power out of its policies.

Fifthly, he stressed upon the importance of thinking in non-security terms, i.e., how we should de-securitise our approaches by also keeping in mind the geo-political issues. The approach of de-securitisation will be sanctified if we do not turn to history and focus on collectively improving infrastructure, public health and education.

On the question regarding India’s place in the global power hierarchy by 2030, Dr Raghavan stressed the importance of self-image and self-esteem. Therefore, India’s place in the global order would be dependent upon how she sees herself and how she will be in the next decade. Comparing the US and China, he pointed out that global power is not a quantitative scale, but stressed that it is the self-esteem of a nation that builds it.

Responding to a question pertaining to India’s attitude towards Pakistan, Dr Raghavan noted that India has never been negligent of Pakistan. Successive Indian governments from the entire range of political spectrum have tried to improve relations with Pakistan, but the internal affairs of Pakistan are not in our hands, therefore, even the best of policy becomes redundant. However, we must continue trying as it is our only option since we cannot change our neighbours. He marked that neighbourhood relations are never easy. By pointing at China-Japan relations and issues between North and South Korea, he emphasised that difficult neighbourhood relations are not an exception but the norm, since neighbourhood requires constant attention of any state, not just India.

On the issue of the importance of narrative in foreign policy, Dr Raghavan was of the opinion that building propaganda platforms does not yield substantial results. He cited China’s massive expenditure to improve its global image yielding no results; on the contrary, one can see China’s image suffering because of this. However, he acknowledged the importance of narrative building, but was opposed to it being on the bureaucratic agenda.

With reference to India’s challenges vis a vis its diplomacy, Ambassador noted that the majority of the challenges currently India faces are domestic. He reasoned that if we address these domestic challenges we will be at peace externally as well. Therefore, we must work on our domestic environment to ensure long-lasting peace, i.e., both internal and external.

The concluding remarks were made by Dr Lawrence Prabhakar, Advisor, CPPR that duly summed up an insightful lecture on India’s neighbourhood and narratives. Dr Prabhakar’s ending remarks emphasised key terms in India’s strategic studies while also discussing the difference between the geopolitical and maritime neighbours. He rightly noted that India needs to work on its Arabian Sea littoral to boost her interests by devising effective maritime policy. Adequate focus was laid on de-securitisation which was deemed as the way forward for India in terms of diplomacy. The lecture encapsulated all the fundamentals and particulars of how India must formulate and put to perspective its foreign policy.

This report is prepared by Ashwati Mahadevan and Aishwarya Pokhriyal, Research Interns with the Centre for Strategic Studies.

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