Of National Governance and Regional Governance
Rajesh Singh

The term ‘governance’ is generally associated with the conduct of a Government at the national or the local levels. But there is also the concept of global governance, or regional governance that goes beyond national boundaries in reach and direct impact. With globalisation making the world one big village, governance inter-connectivity, just like growing international linkage in trade and commerce, has come to play an important role. Various arrangements and institutions have been created over the decades to formalise global or regional governance, and the United Nations is a good example of that. It may not be enjoying the highest level of credibility in the present moment but it’s still the voice of nearly every country in the world, the only platform of its kind.

The success of multilateral institutions depends on how well they are governed, and this in turn rests on the capacity of Governments helming the nations that are the stakeholders. If national regimes are stable with effective leaderships, the institutions and arrangements they are globally or regionally a part of, too will experience better governance and success. However, when national Governments are weak and ineffective for a variety of reasons, the formations they share with other countries suffer from lack of direction, purpose and execution. This complementarity works both ways. When national regimes are able to assume leadership roles in multilateral institutions, it reflects positively in their domestic ratings and gives them the space to be creative. Over the last two and a half years, with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and a stable Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA Government at the Centre, India has begun to make impressions globally. The success of multilateral approaches has in turn fortified the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s image at home.

India has been an early player in the game of regional formations, either based on geography or ideology or geo-political or geo-strategic interests. The country became a key component of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) floated in the early 1960s. In fact, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the prime movers of the concept, and it was rooted in his ideological belief that India must find a middle ground between the West led by the United States of America and the Eastern bloc with the Soviet Union as its guide and mentor. Beginning with a clutch of nations including Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia, it gathered momentum over the decades and kept adding members. Nehru’s leadership and political stature in India was unquestionable and this gave him the leverage to craft a new world order that sought to offer an alternative in the Cold War period to countries that wished to keep away from the US-Soviet Union confrontation. With a change in the global situation in the late eighties with the receding of the Cold War;the disintegration of the Soviet Union; the rise of China and India in the mid-to-late1990s, and the waning influence of the US in many ways, NAM became a redundant idea. Even though it exists today in name, it has no real meaning, and member countries have long moved away to pursue policies that are in their national interests and not any longer dictated by lofty idealism. And yet, NAM remains one of the earliest post Second World War formulations to have made its mark, with Nehru providing it a strong leadership and also gaining domestically from its success.

The other regional formation which India has helmed and which too faces an existential crisis like NAM, though for different reasons, is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In the little over 30 years of its existence, SAARC, as of 2015, represented more than nine per cent of the world’s economy and 21 per cent of the world’s population. By all accounts, this should have made the regional grouping a formidable player by now. The reasons for SAARC not realising its true potential are many, primary among them being the lack of firm leaderships in many of the member nations, frequent political instability, and differences among the members. These can be summed up in two words: Governance deficit. Barring India, nearly every SAARC member has faced these issues over the last decade and more, leaving their leaderships neither the time nor the inclination to strengthen the grouping. Pakistan has politically stabilised only since the last seven years or so (and even then it isn’t clear if the elected regime is indeed in control); Bangladesh has been facing internal troubles although the Government of Sheikh Hasina has done remarkable work in tackling religion-driven terrorism and providing a semblance of secular governance; Nepal has been wrecked by political instability with no leader able to last or leave an imprint; The Maldives too is politically restive. And Afghanistan has been battling political and terrorism-related matters for long. In this situation, it had been left to India to keep the show going.

But recent developments have cast a shadow on SAARC’s relevance and brings to fore the power of regional governance. After the twin-terror attacks at The Pathankot Air force station and an Army base in Uri in Jammu & Kashmir late last year, in which the role of Pakistan-based militants became evident, New Delhi decided to skip the SAARC meet scheduled to be held in Pakistan. Other countries such as Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal too opted out. In any case, Islamabad has been obstructionist within SAARC, often seeking to sabotage initiatives that India is seen to be taking in matters of greater regional connectivity and cooperation within member countries. A less strong Government and Prime Minister in New Delhi would probably have taken the easy governance way out: Waffle over the crisis and hope it will go away on its own. But Narendra Modi and his team had other plans. An old BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal) sub-regional grouping of SAARC nations was dusted out and revived with vigour to bypass Pakistan. It has become a sort of special purpose vehicle. In 2014, when Pakistan objected to a motor vehicle agreement between member nations during the SAARC summit, India lost no time in pursuing the idea with BBIN. In less than six months after Pakistan’s objection at the summit, BBIN members signed the motor vehicle agreement which did away with the trans-shipment of goods from one country’s vehicles to another country’s at the border. The SAARC Motor Vehicles Arrangement, which is what the arrangement has come to be known, has become a major snub to Pakistan and an indication that a strong Government in India led by a result-oriented Prime Minister can set the agenda in the immediate neighbourhood and win over the trust of other countries.

The import of effective regional governance in countering negative influences, strengthening friendships and expanding areas of influence, is known to leaderships across the world. This is especially so for India which has long struggled to realise its potential as a regional power. While it has seen political stability — with the exception of a couple of years in its 70 years of independence — misplaced global and economic policies and ideologies kept the nation shackled. Some freedom began with PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, and over the years, that freedom has taken wings. However, in the period of mid-2004 to mid-14, with Dr. Manmohan Singh struggling to assert his importance in domestic politics although he was the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy, New Delhi’s leadership position began to falter at the regional stage. While India continued to have a voice at international forums, there was no decisiveness in that. Ideas such as Look-East did not metamorphose into Act-East with the determination that was needed. While we got closer to the US, we continued to maintain a balance between Israel and Palestine. The end result was that India began to lose ground in the region, with China gaining at its expense.

However, Prime Minister Modi’s arrival has sought to correct the situation, though China continues to expand its reach. Providing a sense of regional governance, India has now revived another formation that keeps Pakistan at bay: The BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). In a master stroke, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit which India hosted last year, BIMSTEC got an opportunity to interact with BRICS. It was Modi’s way to seek greater synergy between South Asia and Southeast Asia — all the while underlying India’s leadership role in the process. Comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, it represents more than 21 per cent of the world’s population and a combined gross domestic product of over $2.5 trillion. The Government of India’s move to seek the integration between BIMSTEC and BRICS is clearly designed to cut out Pakistan, and there was not much that the latter’s friend China could do here. Prime Minister Modi’s governance game plan is clear: If Pakistan continues to obstruct regional connectivity, use old forums and create new ones if necessary, to take the initiatives forward without involving Islamabad.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that all countries in these formations are inimical to Pakistan. Nepal and Sri Lanka, for instance, have sound ties with that country. Afghanistan has had a love-hate relationship, though now it has positioned itself openly against Pakistan and is firmly on India’s side. Prime Minister Modi’s regional governance approach has to ensure that the new initiatives do not end up as just a means to isolate Pakistan but essentially to perform the tasks they have been mandate to. Nations will remain bonded if they see results of inter-connectivity in trade, commerce and diplomacy. Besides, geo-strategic interests too need to be served.

In a larger perspective, Pakistan is only a bit player (or obstacle) in India’s desire to emerge as an influencer beyond the Asian region. New Delhi’s real challenge is Beijing. China, like India, has a strong and focused leadership which is unapologetic about expanding its reach. To this end, it has adopted an exquisite approach, both challenging and being part of the global structures that the West built, nurtured and influenced. Thus, Beijing is an active member of the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, seeking to change its functioning from within. At the G-20 meet as far back as in 2009, it demanded larger voting shares in both these global funding agencies. But at the same time, China has floated alternative funding banks as well to cut the West-dominated agencies. The China-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) can be seen as a Sino-centric attempt to reduce China’s dependency on Bretton Woods. But it’s just one such attempt; the creation of the New Development Bank (more popularly known as the BRICS Bank) is another. Incidentally, India is an important player in both these initiatives, with the first chief of the BRICS Bank being an Indian, and India being the second-largest contributor to the AIIB.

China has been single-mindedly pursuing other methods to have its way (some say it’s not imposition but a legitimate demand) in regional and global affairs. it must be admitted that many other states including India have often shared this sentiment — that the West had created a post Second World War order to suits its needs and had sought to shut out regional heavyweights such as China and India. But while that’s now changing, what worries some experts is that Beijing appears to want to replicate the discredited model in terms of hegemony. This may be an alarmist position, given that China’s relationship with the larger part of the world is overwhelmingly dependent on trade and commerce and has little to do with bilateral warmth which is evident between nations and Governments that share values of democracy and cultural tolerance. Even so, it’s a situation which India cannot but take cognisance of.

China’s One Belt One Road project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — the last seeing much hectic activity in recent times since it was established 15 years ago — are vehicles for China to exponentially extend its influence in the region and beyond. The SCO is a Chinese initiative with Russia’s backing and seeks to co-opt various countries in trade, security and energy besides other matters, and India’s own security and energy issues are deeply intertwined here. The measure of the Indian leadership’s external (regional) governance lies in facing up to these formulations.

Sharp governance and fleet-footed approach to changing geo-political realities alone can keep India in the race for regional leadership. While working alongside China, it must continue to engage fully with the West and strike partnerships wherever it suits the national interest. This dual approach is possible if the country’s head of Government has the political acumen and goodwill to do things out of the box and break age-old templates. So far, Prime Minister Modi has demonstrated that he is up to the task. In the good old days when the world order was bipolar, it was fairly simple for nations to take a position or walk the middle ground (though it must be admitted that the so-called middle ground was not so middle; countries ended up aligning, even if informally, with either the US or Soviet Russia). But today, interests often both conflict and converge in one relationship. The India-China bilateral, which has multilateral consequences, is a good instance. Managing such situation calls for effective regional governance.

(The writer is Opinion Editor, The Pioneer, senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)

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