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The Paradox of Proximity: India's approach to fragility in the neighbourhood

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Nitin Pai

  1. Introduction

The risks posed by fragile states have moved to the centre-stage of Western security consciousness only in recent years, fundamentally as the result of globalisation and precipitously due to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.The threats posed by fragile states to the Western countries are palpable and proximate—for instance, in the form of terrorist plots, influx of refugees and organised crime—but the origins of the threats are relatively remote. Western policymakers and publics, therefore, enjoy a certain geographical and temporal insulation, not only allowing for detached analysis but also allowing a broader range of policy options.

It is different for India. Both its immediate and its extended neighbourhoods consist of several states that are in the turbulence of transition, contending with institutional weaknesses, political fragility and governance failure. For India, history and proximity turn what might have been largely matters of foreign policy into a number of interconnected issues of domestic politics.

It is nearly impossible for India’s policymakers to detach its approach towards a nearby fragile state from a panoply of domestic political considerations. From a security perspective, the range and intensity of threats increases with proximity; but so too, the number of domestic political constituencies that have a stake in the game. Moreover, even within the Indian government, neighbourhood policy is shaped by a large number of agencies across federal, state and sometimes even district levels. Given that domestic policy outcomes in parliamentary democracies like India are the result of the complex interplay of political forces, there are limitations on the timeliness, coherence and effectiveness of India’s response.

Therein lies the paradox of proximity: having a fragile state in the neighbourhood makes it important for you to intervene, but there are structural constraints that hinder your ability to do so.

This essay examines the motivations, constraints and processes that shape India’s policy towards fragile states.

It aims to show that addressing state fragility in one’s neighborhood is a vastly more challenging project than managing risks emanating from distant ones. Shared history, non-contiguous boundaries, and a cultural affinity across borders add additional complexity. The essay begins with an overview of India’s contemporary motivations for engagement and intervention in the turbulent geopolitics of southern Asia. It identifies the various types of interventions in which India has engaged, and attempts to derive the underlying features of India’s approach. The policy process is discussed next, analysing how drivers, constraints and players affect decisionmaking. We conclude with a brief assessment of how India’s policy towards fragile states, both proximate and distant, might change as India becomes a middle-income country with global interests.