international analysis and commentary

The Indian Ocean: an “Indian idea”

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This thought has been brewing in the corridors of power at Raisina Hill these days. Diplomats whisper about it, while at least one prominent not-for-profit India Foundation, which counts two sitting cabinet ministers as mentors, has started organising an Indian Ocean Conference (to be held this year in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after Singapore last year). Meanwhile, the recently appointed Principal Economic Adviser to the government, Sanjeev Sanyal, joined the project months after writing a well-reviewed book on the Indian Ocean.

India has always considered the Indian Ocean as its area of hegemony; at least one cabinet minister in the past was fond of joking that this is why it is called the ‘Indian’ Ocean. But this time it’s not just about trade routes and geographical areas of influence. India now thinks of the Indian Ocean not just as a strategic resource – like the Suez Canal for Egypt – but as a civilisational treasure. Think of it as having, for India, the policy implication of the Silk Route for China combined with the sanctity of Mount Fuji for Japan.

Cultural revivalism has been one of the strongest aspects of the three-year-old Narendra Modi government, and the prime minister has constantly tried to infuse his energetic foreign policy parlays with liberal doses of culture, specifically in connecting the dots to ancient Indian history and mythology. The Indian Ocean weighs heavily in this imagination. One of the first infrastructural announcements of Modi after coming to power in 2014 was that it would protect ‘Rama Sethu’, or the underwater bridge between India and Sri Lanka that stretches across the Palk Straits which Hindus believe is the bridge between the two countries mentioned in the epic Ramayana as built by the god-king Rama. The bridge came under dispute following a previous government’s plan to dredge a new shipping channel which would make shipping swifter, but the project  stalled due to the fervent objection of senior politicians. The lead antagonist to the project is now a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and has been made a member of parliament. Modi’s government has announced that it is working on finding new routes that would not touch the Rama Sethu.

This thought process emphasizes not just major diplomatic initiatives such as Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian head of state in three decades, soon after coming to power, but also deepening relations  with countries which have long cultural ties with India. Once wary of rising powers in its waters, India is making an active effort to reach out to countries like Indonesia where Modi sees twin benefits.

India gets to push its cultural commonality with a predominantly Muslim country but where emblems of its Hindu past abound – from the name of the national airline (Garuda, a bird from the Ramayana) to many depictions of the same epic in the tourist hotspot of Bali, while trying to restrain radical Islam, which seems to be rising in some quarters in Indonesia. The world’s largest archipelago, which is spread over the Indian and Pacific Ocean, is a good partner to have for a maritime strategy. Not for no reason has the Indian foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, talked about “reviving the Indian Ocean as a geopolitical concept”. The country has also been trying to raise the profile of the Indian Ocean Rim Association by focusing on it more prominently during bilateral discussions like Modi’s meeting with Joko Widodo in New Delhi in December 2016.

India believes focusing on the Indian Ocean is one of its best bets to counter China’s massive One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. India is the only major country to have refused participation in OBOR because it passes through territory in the Himalayan heights of Kashmir, which India considers occupied by Pakistan. To counter increasing Chinese influence in maritime hubs around India – a strategy famously known as ‘string of pearls’ – India bought the rights to set up two new island hubs in 2016, Agalega from Mauritius and Assumption from Seychelles.

Indian defence analysts keep suggesting that China is still years, if not decades, away from seriously being able to counter Indian naval might in the Indian Ocean, but the word is that the Modi government takes this far more seriously than most defence strategists. When Modi started out in office, he had hoped that he would leave a significant and transformative impact on India’s South Asian ties. But terror-related instability in Pakistan and Bangladesh, along with never-ending political crisis in Nepal, seems to have derailed a lot of the promise, at least for now. So India’s eyes are now firmly on the waters.