Nepali Times Asian Paints
Here And There
There goes the neighbourhood


Gripping issues may be in short supply for the country's 700-million plus voters who seem underwhelmed by the parade of political ambition on display in recent weeks. But just take a look around the region.

Sri Lanka's relentless and brutal campaign against the Tamil Tigers is on the brink of success. No one knows yet at what cost to civilian lives. Pakistan's army seems serious as it ramps up military pressure on the Taliban, engaging them in Dir, Buner and soon Swat.

And then there's Nepal. The deepening stand-off over General Katawal's attempted dismissal has plunged the country into murky and frightening new territory. The mother of all power vacuums looks set to ensue.

Meanwhile, India's netas keep on making promises and flinging mud but largely ignoring the region's turmoil. National power, they know, doesn't lie in leading the way to peace in neighbouring states.

Yes, the UPA government remains in place and is free?even under India's strict model code of conduct?to take decisions on crucial issues of foreign policy. But External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is facing a tough election fight in his West Bengal constituency and even his legendary work ethic is being tested by the bulging files that keep dropping on his often empty desk at South Block.

Not just in New Delhi but in national capitals around the world, India's claim on political leadership across South Asia is widely accepted. True, China might have a thing or two to say but even Beijing believes that country's should be free to lead the way in their own neighbhourhoods.

Washington, London, Berlin and Brussels know that India is a key player in regional affairs that has to be onboard before foreigners take new initiatives.

UNMIN in Nepal needed India's grudging approval. Norway failed in Sri Lanka, in part because New Delhi wasn't kept in the loop by a Scandinavian style peace effort that was viewed as increasingly partisan.

Nor can India be de-linked from a role in international attempts to undermine Islamism in Pakistan and ease the country into a more secular and prosperous future. Washington's special envoy, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, is at pains to treat Delhi's powerful diplomats and ministers as near-equals in his attempts to sort things out in the Af-Pak region.

So what to do when New Delhi, political New Delhi, has its eye off the ball during an unprecedented series of regional firestorms erupt and intensify. Well, if you're the Maoists in Nepal you make your move, accuse the Indian bureaucrats of being partial to the Army, and hope that high risk carries high rewards. In poker, they call this going 'all-in', shoving all your money into the middle of the table and daring everyone else to join the game and see just what cards you're holding. Other players at this particular table will probably make India part of their bid for power too, betting on a total breach between the neighbouring country and the outgoing Maoists.

Sri Lanka's government takes a more subtle line. Begged two weeks ago by senior officials from Delhi to tone down an offensive that was whipping up turmoil in electorally crucial Tamil Nadu, they make visible concessions while keeping up the military pressure in less obvious ways.

In other words, their soldiers are still blasting away with guns and mortars but they've stopped bombing and shelling with heavy artillery. Non-combatants are still dying, but less obviously.

Even Pakistani leaders (civilians only of course, the army needs a hostile India to justify its grip on power and resources) have been reaching out quietly and secretly to India. They want desperately for Delhi, still angry over the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, to renew dialogue and shore up efforts to rebrand the Taliban and Al Qaeda the main existential threats to their nation.

Even a distracted India plays its designated role in this benighted region. After the elections, look for fast action on foreign policy, involving Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Diplomats and bureaucrats, however much maligned by the likes of Baburam Bhattarai, can't be expected to take bold initiatives or think outside the box. It's beyond their pay scale. Pray for an Indian election result of your choice, but pray it comes soon

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)