South Asia reminds me of the most complex family of Lord Shiva in South Asian mythology. Shiva lives in Kailash Mountain, one of the coldest places, and wears the Ganges River on his head and snakes on his body. His throat posits the most potent poison and his mount is a bull. The mount of Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is a lion. Their elder son Kartikeya’s mount is a peacock and younger son Ganesh’s is a mouse.
To keep peace in Shiva’s family is next to impossible. The lion eats the bull. The peacock eats the snakes and the mouse. The river sweeps everyone. The poison could kill everyone. In this situation, the guardians cannot blink even for a second without inviting disaster. This is the conundrum of South Asia as well.
The South Asian family is only a tad less complicated than Lord Shiva’s but not much less. India, the old hegemone, has been losing its sphere of influence in the region. Pakistan spun out of its orbit as soon as it was carved out from the old India. When India moved closer to the Soviet Union, Pakistan aligned itself with the West and China. The two countries have fought three wars and have been accusing each other of promoting terrorism in each other’s territories.
Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are also on the rock. Islamabad had allowed the West to use its territories to wage war against Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Subsequently, it has allegedly supported Taliban terrorists who have been causing mayhem for the West-supported government in Kabul.
For plausible reasons, other small South Asian countries entertain the fear of India. India is the elephant in the South Asian room. Although the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government is cozy to India, the Bangladeshis have not forgotten the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan that led to the swift creation of their country. Besides, South Asian public consciousness is still fresh that Indian military intervention ensured Sikkim’s merger with India, prolonged the civil war in Sri Lanka, and crushed the rebellion against the incumbent government in the Maldives.
Indian military presence continues in Bhutan, which has accepted Indian security umbrella. But over the last two decades or so, Thimpu has been trying to establish and strengthen its relationships with Beijing to resolve its border disputes, especially after the Doklam standoff between India and China and reach out to the rest of the world without Indian guidance.
After Bhutan expelled its Nepali speaking citizens, relations between Kathmandu and Thimpu have remained far from warm and cordial in essence.
From the 1950s, Nepal has gradually spun off the Indian pivot. It remained neutral in the India-China War, removed the Indian security posts from the Nepal-China border, opposed the three Indian economic blockades imposed to bend the Himalayan country. It has been resisting Indian efforts to bring it under the Indian security and diplomatic umbrella in line with Bhutan. The present Communist Party government in Kathmandu, which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the parliament and which has been pushing the cross-Himalayan road and rail links, has become a major cause of concern for New Delhi.
China has been the main factor in eroding Indian hegemony in South Asia. It has aggressively reached out to South Asian countries with its increased trade and investment and its latest infrastructure initiative–Belt and Road–that seeks to connect itself to all South Asian countries and beyond. More specifically, Beijing helped Islamabad to develop its nuclear weapons to counter India, Colombo to end the civil war Sri Lanka and build its infrastructure, Male to improve its ports and other facilities. It is helping Nepal with trade, investment and infrastructure development, including the cross-Himalayan rail and road networks, which India frowns.
On an important level, Western countries have also contributed to the erosion of the Indian sphere of influence. After Britain receded to the British Isles, Western countries have massively expanded the network of their non-governmental organizations directly and through South Asian proxies. These organizations finance development activities in the region and proselytize the deprived South Asians to Christian faith to counter the authority of the Indian and other South Asian governments.
The slowing Chinese economy in the face of US-China trade war and American President Donald Trump’s US-centric policy might come to India’s rescue, but there is no guarantee. After a long gallop, the Chinese economy has decelerated into a trot which, if continued, will curtail Beijing’s infrastructure initiative and military buildup that has helped it spread its influence in the neighborhood and beyond by leaps and bounds. Similarly, Trump’s policy is likely to discourage the massive financing of Western non-governmental organizations that work in South Asia and seek to curb the power of South Asian governments.
Due to the difficulties inherent in managing his complex family, Lord Shiva used to spend most of his time away from home. He would spend most of his time away from home either meditating or converting himself into one of the animals to enjoy their innocent company.
But the problem in South Asia is that countries cannot go out of their neighborhood like Lord Shiva. They will have to learn to live in their neighborhood the way it is and their guardians will have to keep the tempers down without blinking for a second. The challenge is more serious for landlocked countries that have to depend on their coastal neighbors to reach out to the rest of the world.