Thwarting 'Failure' in South Asia

Six South Asian countries have been listed amongst the 25 states likeliest to fail on the “Failed States Index”, co-created by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace. The same six countries - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka - (in the same order) were also featured amongst the top 25 in last year’s rankings.

The Indian subcontinent, it appears, has the highest density of states in danger of ‘failing’ in a geographical region, aside from a broad swathe of Central Africa running from Sudan to Guinea. Nearly half a billion people live in the states marked as likely to fail in the subcontinent.

Any failure of state within the subcontinent is likely to have an impact well beyond the borders of that country. In fact that is exactly why US based think-tanks and magazines create these ‘failed states index’ to begin with. The co-creators of the index argue, citing the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy - filled with the typical hyperbole that garbs most US security policy documents - that the impact of state failure is likely to be ‘global’. Even if we discount such assertions, the likely impact of state failure in the subcontinent is certainly worrisome, especially for India.

Before we analyze the impact of state failure in South Asia, let me diverge briefly to formalize what we mean by a ‘failed state’.

What is a ‘Failed State’?

One may argue that if a state fails its people, it is a ‘failed state’. But formally a ‘failed state’ is defined as one with weak government, political instability, and insecurity. State Failure, according to Center for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland’s State Failure Task Force Report: Phase III Findings (Large PDF document - 255 pages) has been defined as a state that may have one or a combination of the following -

* “Revolutionary wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict between governments and politically organized challengers that seek to overthrow the central government, to replace its leaders, or to seize power in one region.
* Ethnic wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict in which national, ethnic, religious, or other communal minorities challenge governments to seek major changes in status.
* Adverse regime changes. Major, abrupt shifts in patterns of governance, including state collapse, periods of severe elite or regime instability, and shifts away from democracy toward authoritarian rule.
* Genocides and politicides. Sustained policies by states or their agents, or, in civil wars, by either of the contending authorities that result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a communal or political group.”

India in a ‘Dangerous Neighborhood’

There are a variety of factors that underpin the instability in the region – resurgent Islamic fundamentalism combined with military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh (two different degrees in both countries), Taleban in Afghanistan, ‘Maoists’ in Nepal, hermetic authoritarian regime in Burma, and Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka.

Troublingly a lot of problems, like Islamic fundamentalism, that plague ‘failing states’ in South Asia can ‘travel’ well across borders. There is already evidence to the fact that Maoist success in Nepal is having an effect of emboldening Maoists insurgents in eastern part of India. And if problems in Bangladesh were to set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India, it is likely that the wide-spread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east India would escalate into sectarian violence.

Given the fact that India has tangible, probable, and immediate threats, and given India’s crucial role within South Asian politics, it is but obvious that India should play a crucial role in mitigating some of the issues precipitating state failure in its neighborhood. India will have to play its hand deftly though and the choices will not always be obvious. For example, India has for years on end enjoyed a cozy relationship with Nepalese Royalty but has had to put in its weight behind the political parties and the Maoists who wanted the Monarchy scrapped. On the other end India, which has long argued for democracy in Pakistan, has established a healthy working relationship with Musharraf government and even made some moves towards meaningful negotiations over Kashmir.

While India has shown great pragmatism in dealing with some long running and some ‘unexpected’ political upheavals, it doesn’t seem to have a coherent long term strategic perspective on how to foment stability in the region. Part of the reason is that India doesn’t really have the bargaining power, as in resources or military muscle, for a more aggressive foreign policy. However it does enjoy fair amount of credibility among the major powers within the world, and it is time that it use it to chart out a longer term policy towards it neighbors. The key components of the policy should be a enlightened economic policy – for example, making compromises towards creating a regional free-trade block, a more active role in diplomacy – say for example complimenting the role of the Norwegians and the Icelandic delegation in Sri Lanka, taking lead in thinking about ’sustainable development’ and environment – especially important given the enormous impact that global warming can wreck on the region, marshalling resources from the Western countries for the basics – education, health, and basic infrastructure, and working with authoritarian regimes where necessary to urge for more moderate and sustainable policies.
The survey, which is based on “data from more than 11,000 publicly available sources collected from July to December 2005″ and tracks 12 socio-economic and political factors, puts Pakistan one rank above Afghanistan. That is reason enough to doubt the results of the survey.

2005 was a traumatic year for Pakistan with insurgency gaining ground in the west, a massive earthquake that destroyed parts of its north-west, continued sectarian violence in Karachi and of course the continuing rule of the West’s favorite military ruler - General Pervez Musharaff. All these factors were enough to make Pakistan lose ground from its relatively safe 34th position last year, to the shaky 9th this year. The report itself counts the earthquake as the chief reason for the decline.

India’s neighborhood it seems is getting very unstable. Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal are consecutively placed at number 18, 19 and 20 respectively on the scale. If the data from the current year was to be included, I believe Nepal would surely make it to the top 10. Sri Lanka of course is simmering again and is likely to lose ground from its current ranking of 25.

The surrounding instability in the neighborhood may affect India critically if one or more countries see a prolonged conflagration. Let me refine this hypothesis a bit - there is encouraging evidence that a country can withstand chaos in the neighborhood. Take for example South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe and has seen massive flow of immigrants from the country. On the other hand, Nepal’s resurgent Maoist movement may find support in the beleaguered northeast areas on India and the impoverished villages around Himalayan region. Similarly any problems in Bangladesh may set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India. There is already wide-spread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in part of North-east and any spurt in immigration is likely to set off violent demonstrations.

While prognosis for long-term stability in South Asia seems bad, things aren’t particularly hot for East Asia either. Among the other countries that saw a precipitous ‘rise’ in the rankings over the past year include China, which on the basis of its “87,000″ peasant strikes lost 10 points to clock in at 57th.

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