New Delhi: In May 2003, the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, intervened in a discussion on India-Pakistan relations in the Lok Sabha and made a statement that forms the core of sub-continental geopolitics. “I have told our Pakistani friends,” he said in his inimitable way, “that friends can be changed but not neighbours. We have to live here. We either live as friends or we keep fighting, making ourselves the butt of ridicule before the world.” Vajpayee was not one to mince words when the occasion demanded.

The re-elected government in New Delhi has retired Vajpayee’s flawless geopolitical logic and replaced it with something tawdry that staggers belief. Its cabinet spokesman says that SAARC has “problems” while BIMSTEC has “energy”. This is euphemistically to say that Pakistan is excluded from India’s geopolitics while Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan are the predominant focus areas. Governments are elected to make policy or create ruin and the re-elected government is entirely entitled to view the world from whatever distorted prism that takes its fancy. The question is: Will a BIMSTEC bias to the exclusion of SAARC work? Since the query is related to the intimate workings of geopolitics, it is to a true understanding of geopolitics that our exertions must be directed.

Geopolitics is infinitely more than the sum of its two constituent words, geography and politics, but often government practitioners and policy-makers concentrate on politics and forget about geography. It never works. Unless you are secure in your neighbourhood and have as few enemies as possible, you cannot hope to make a geopolitical splash. A “leading power” is unlikely to rise from a highly troubled neighbourhood. Unless that neighbourhood is geopolitically managed through endurance diplomacy, backchannel talks, incremental gains, give-and-take and so forth joined with economic growth and military vigil, no geopolitical forward movement is possible. Geopolitics depends on fundamentals as much as the economy and the stock markets.

Modern history is full of examples of Great Powers who maximized geopolitics by a correct understanding of the term. The United States became the world’s greatest Great Power in the nineteenth century and held itself back in the western hemisphere till it was totally ready to police the globe, and even then reluctantly. It intervened late in both world wars and this was far from accidental. Because Great Britain couldn’t be a land power as a tiny island, it focussed on naval power, trade and colonies, improvised as it went along, and became an astute practitioner of the balance of power. It held the fate of continental Europe in its hands for much of the nineteenth century. Conceivably the last of the genius nation-builders, Deng Xiaoping in the late twentieth century understood the value of peace and geography to politics and rise. No one who knows China’s history can ever underestimate Deng’s singular achievements even though his hands were stained with the blood of the Tiananmen massacre. Deng succeeded like Otto von Bismarck and the founders of the United States because he understood geopolitics in its entirety.

To limit the play of the geographical element in geopolitics and expect remarkable results is to advertise ignorance and fecklessness if not worse. If Vajpayee, one of the country’s finest prime ministers after Jawaharlal Nehru, could not cut away Pakistan and continue with geopolitics as if all was well, no one else can. While relations with Pakistan are what they are, Indian geopolitics will head nowhere unless relations with the western neighbour are on an even keel. A former prime minister laid the foundation for that with the Simla Agreement making all disputes, including the one on Kashmir, subject to bilateral settlement. India cannot turn its back on history. It is not yet there whatever the propaganda to the contrary.

Admittedly, Pakistan is not an easy neighbour. Few neighbours are especially in a highly competitive and crowded continent like Asia. Ask Israel or Saudi Arabia or even demonized Iran. Further afield, check with Donald Trump who has threatened an incremental five percent tariff on Mexico for not staunching the refugee flow from Guatemala to the United States. And while Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping act friendly in the face of US threats, Putin is apprehensive of losing the Russian Far East to Chinese hordes. As nuclear powers, they fought along the Ussuri River at the height of the Cold War. Turning your back on a problem will not make the problem disappear. And what’s so special about the BIMSTEC states? Sri Lanka is tottering from self-inflicted wounds; even by its low standards, it has a breathtakingly incompetent leadership today. Nepal is a Chinese satellite. Bhutan’s only viable option going forward appears to be strict neutrality. Burma is unpredictable and a global pariah saved by the graces of China with a veto in the UN Security Council. And any more closeness with Bangladesh will prove a kiss of death for the Bangladesh leadership. This is not to mention the ferment in Bangladesh should India press it to accept its migrant citizens.

The key to geopolitical success is to make replications of the success nearly impossible. Bismarck’s Germany couldn’t be replicated; nor for that matter can Deng’s China be cloned in the present. The United States’ superpower status has not come by fluke and there won’t be another United States for a long time to come if ever. None of these powers denied their neighbourhood difficulties or limitations but worked on them to telling effect. Contrast this with the meagreness of the BIMSTEC for SAARC formula. Can you play ducks and drakes with geography? Now that you have announced a policy of isolating Pakistan, what’s to prevent China from throwing a spanner? All the BIMSTEC states are vulnerable to Chinese pressure and blandishments. Nothing is forever. If Maldives turned against China, it can turn pro again, and so can the others. Crafting policy that can withstand strategic assault is the true characteristic of sound and sustainable geopolitics and BIMSTEC for SAARC fails the test.