Much of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's time in office has been spent trying to project India's power abroad. But India's position on the global stage will remain contentious until it establishes itself as a first among equals in South Asia.

Indian Prime Minister Modi hosted world leaders from emerging powers during the BRICS summit held in Goa, India.
Indian Prime Minister Modi hosted world leaders from emerging powers during the BRICS summit held in Goa, India. (TRT World and Agencies)

South Asia is no stranger to violence, blood-letting and revenge, so it is a pity that the region's two largest countries, India and Pakistan, haven't learnt to live together despite 70 years of living next door to each other.

Over the last month relations have been especially strained, in the wake of the attack on an Indian army base in Jammu & Kashmir by terrorists from across the Line of Control, Indian retaliatory strikes inside Pakistani territory and most recently, a tit-for-tat expulsion of alleged spies from each other's embassies in the two capitals.

It has now come to light that strikes by Indian armed forces inside Pakistani territory have taken place before. What's new is that the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed the strikes; in fact, Mr Modi has pointedly likened the Indian army to the Israeli army, ascribing it a much more assertive role than ever before.

For many Indians, this self-congratulatory tone is new – although, I daresay, the aspirational middle-class rather likes Mr Modi's strong-arm approach to regional politics. Most previous governments were fearful of ratcheting up tensions, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, even if they are rather poor ones.

Certainly, other nations with long histories as well as shorter ones have dealt with national expectations in a variety of ways. Chinese Communism ensured basic living standards for all its citizens, notwithstanding corruption at the top; Brazil explored cash doles, while South Africa attempted moral reconciliation between former political enemies.

Turkey, of course, experimented with enlightened moderation which is the essential message of Islam – much like the Buddha's Middle Path, more than 2500 years ago – and which reflects the character of that nation on the crossroads between East and West.

Owing to its enormous size and population, India dominates the sub-continent with ease; with over 180 million people, South Asia's second-largest nation, Pakistan, is still smaller than Uttar Pradesh, a province of nearly 200 million astride the country's northern half.

Like any large nation, India is intimately connected with every part of its neighbourhood. With Nepal in the north, it shares a 1700km-long open border, with Bangladesh plans are afoot to share electricity on the eastern grid, and with Sri Lanka in the south, talk persists of a comprehensive economic partnership which will essentially create a free-trade area between the two countries.

Afghanistan's growing bad blood with Pakistan has pushed it to seek a more comprehensive partnership with India. The democratic opposition in the pleasure islands of the Maldives hopes Delhi will support its urge to dislodge the autocracy of the ruling president Abdulla Yameen.

Occasionally, some of India's neighbours consider using China, that other rising world power, as leverage against India. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the 18th century ruler who united Nepal, famously described his country's geostrategic location as a "yam between two boulders," and several of his descendants have taken note of that prescient analysis.

Prime Minister Modi hosts the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key. Modi has made 54 trips to 44 countries since he became Prime Minister of India in 2014.
Prime Minister Modi hosts the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key. Modi has made 54 trips to 44 countries since he became Prime Minister of India in 2014. ()

Nepal's prime minister and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or ‘Prachanda' as he is widely known (which means, "the fierce one" in Nepali) has been much more accepting of Delhi's political largesse in his second term at the helm. Recently, Prachanda agreed with New Delhi that the Nepali Constitution give equal rights to the dark-skinned people of the Terai who neighbour India, alongside the fairer-skinned Nepalis who inhabit the hill areas.

Unlike Modi, who seeks to project a self-confident India willing to lead the region, his centrist predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, had preferred to push for greater economic integration between India and its neighbourhood in an effort towards greater political understanding.

Through that world view, trade and economic cooperation would become the linchpin of regional progress. With India as the economic hub, the smaller neighbours would constitute the spokes giving the wheel much greater momentum. Especially with Pakistan, the boom-boom of trucks carrying onions, tomatoes and cement back and forth, would moderate the antagonism and reactionary verbal warfare that is often a byproduct of political tensions between the two establishments.

Modi did buy into Singh's long-term vision for the region, but the truth is that it isn't quite working out that way, at least in some parts of the neighbourhood. Even as Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal seek greater economic and political cooperation with India, on the western front the Kashmir crisis has flared up again. A recent upsurge of human rights violations by Indian security forces in the troubled Kashmir valley has given Pakistan the opportunity to internationalise the crisis, once again.

But the world seems far more interested in Aleppo and Iraq and the rising tension between old rivals US and Russia to worry too much, at least for the moment, about the crisis in Kashmir.

Certainly, for the moment, the Modi government has got some much-needed breathing space. But if India really wants to lead South Asia, then it must reach out to smoothen the rough edges of all its neighbours, including Pakistan.

India's neighbours will agree to consider India a first among equals only when it rises above the jingoistic nonsense that threatens to divide peoples not only across borders, but also within.

Kashmiris are Indian citizens, which means that security forces committing human rights violations must be brought to justice. Meanwhile, all the peoples of South Asia must be welcomed inside India – dubbing Pakistani film actors as the "enemy" and forbidding them to work in Bollywood only diminishes the accommodating nature of the Indian republic.

The real test of Narendra Modi's leadership is upon him.

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