Indira Gandhi's legacy: vying for mastery in South Asia.

Author:Crossette, Barbara
 
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When outsiders look back on the decades in which Indira Gandhi dominated Indian politics, from the late 1960s to 1984, they pay most attention to her domestic policies, and especially to the 1975-77 period of emergency rule that stripped Indians of their civil liberties and sent hundreds to jail. But Indira Gandhi was also a very large presence beyond India's borders, and her negative impact on other countries in South Asia--where no electorate could vote her out of power--has been longer lasting. In fact, its effects on regional stability are still being felt.

Although Indira Gandhi has been dead nearly a quarter of a century and subsequent governments have significantly reduced tensions with neighbors in recent years, the record of India's exercise of regional power is worth studying in respect to the future role the country hopes to play in world affairs. Upbeat attitudes toward India held in Washington and more widely in the West are not always shared by weaker nations in the shadow of this subcontinental giant.

Now regarded as a rising world power, India is seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and certainly is not without credentials to back its bid. Globally, it has long been a major troop contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, most recently sending a unique all-women police force to Liberia in 2007, to aid Africa's first elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as she struggles to pacify a violent society born of civil strife. In Cambodia, India has lent support to a UN-backed tribunal to try aging Khmer Rouge leaders now in custody in an Indian-financed detention center. The United States, which pressed the UN to set up the court, has refused so far to contribute to its costs.

India has expanded its diplomatic and economic reach broadly in Southeast Asia, deepening its involvement with the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Indians (along with China) are seen as key to putting pressure on the military rulers of Burma, an ASEAN member along with Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Worldwide, India's diplomatic corps ranks among the best, not only in representing the country effectively but also providing special envoys for UN assignments such as guiding a transitional government in East Timor following that new nation's independence from Indonesia. Indians have also held high-ranking positions at UN headquarters since the organization's founding.

If India's fast-growing economy stays on track, the country is expected to exert considerable influence in international financial and trade organizations, often in far-reaching informal alliances with other emerging powers including Brazil and South Africa. India's voice is already heard frequently in institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. A largely buoyant annual survey published in early 2008 by the International Monetary Fund commended the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for its "sound macroeconomic policies and structural reforms," though it warned that economic growth would need to be more inclusive. It is not widely known that in social indicators such as health and education, India ranks closer to sub-Saharan Africa than to most of Asia, which by virtue of its huge population (now nearing 1.2 billion) pulls the entire South Asian region down statistically. There are negative implications for sustained future economic growth in a poorly educated work force and a society where nearly half of all children are malnourished.

Like any other major country, India, a nuclear power, has at times played a self-interested spoiler role on the international stage, refusing to agree to or trying to block disarmament agreements such as the nuclear nonproliferation and comprehensive test ban treaties. Indian officials and diplomats are skillful at covering up blots on its national reputation, from the uncooperative conduct of an Indian general on an African peacekeeping mission for the UN, to human rights abuses on minority populations, to government corruption (including bribes paid to a sitting foreign minister by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s through the UN's "oil for food" program).

Indeed, at the World Bank, India played a large role in forcing Paul Wolfowitz from the bank presidency in 2007, apparently mainly in opposition to Wolfowitz's tough anti-corruption policies and not his personal relationship with a bank employee. In the light of subsequent events, it seems clear that India had good reason to try to head off a campaign against graft. In early 2008, in one of the bank's biggest corruption scandals to date, New Delhi was accused of misappropriating or misusing hundreds of millions of dollars in bank funds for health projects. When The Wall Street Journal published details of an internal bank document on this large-scale theft in India (and related misconduct within the World Bank itself) the new president, Robert Zoellick, admitted in a news release that the bank probe had "revealed unacceptable indicators of fraud and corruption." Several dozen bank officials have been assigned to work with the Indian government to investigate abuses and rectify accounts.

A Pattern of Meddling

In general, India's mixed record of using its power internationally enhances the concerns of the country's South Asian neighbors, who do not always see India as a benign presence or a trusted spokesman for the region. In virtually every country on India's borders, Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party, using Indian intelligence agencies--the domestic Intelligence Bureau and, after the late-1960s, the new Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), developed for international operations--left a legacy of meddling, subversion, and mistrust. Not infrequently, smaller countries were effectively tipped off balance or crippled, which is apparently what she intended. Always on the lookout for outside (often American) threats--the "foreign hand"--Gandhi aimed to prevent neighboring governments from being drawn into the orbit of the West or, worse, China. Neighbors that moved toward free market economies, such as Sri Lanka, were also suspect, as India clung to a socialist-inspired more closed system of import-substitution and the heavy-handed, cumbersome state regulation that became known as license raj.

It is part of the Gandhi legacy that India only reluctantly agreed to the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, known as SAARC, which was proposed by President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh in the late-1970s, but began to meet regularly only in 1985, a year after Gandhi's death. Since then, India has wielded its enormous power to keep the regional organization weak, occasionally preventing meetings from taking place or stalling the adoption of regional pacts--all the while, paradoxically, clamoring to be given a bigger...

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