Anchor : Frank Rausan Pereira
Speakers : Shiv Shankar Mukerjee, Former Ambassador to Nepal; S.D. Muni, Foreign Affairs Expert; Mallika Shakya, Assistant Professor, South Asian University Anchor
Importance of this Episode:
- Seeking to reset ties, PM Narendra Modi and his Nepali counterpart, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli held wide-ranging talks in an effort to step up overall engagement and take the relationship to newer heights on the basis of equality, mutual trust and respect. After the delegation level talks, PM Modi said that India will always stand by Nepal in its quest for all-round development growth, asserting that deeper cooperation between the two countries will strengthen democracy in Nepal.
- In his press statement, PM Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, who is seen as building a closer relationship with China, says that his government wants to build a strong edifice of trust-based relationship between the two nations. This edition of India’s World will seek to examine as to where the bilateral relationship between the two countries is headed.
Analysis by the Experts:
- When we look at the key takeaways from PM Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s visit to India, we arrive at the following: 1) At the governmental level between the two countries, one has forgotten the past 2) However, it is important to note that there is no change in Mr. Oli’s assertive tone and that Nepal would expect India to respect and honour Nepal in whatever she does. The critical area is how they handle their relationships with other neighbours such as Pakistan and China, and how is it that the two countries handle the innocuous balance as there was an oblique reference in the joint statement released by the two countries of both the countries aiming at building federal institutions and federalism in Nepal.
- Now it is important to note that federalism is new in Nepal and therefore, they will need a lot of economic and technical assistance also; but in addition to this, the federalism issue also incorporates the ‘Madhesi’ issue which is not otherwise spelt out.
- It is important to see the talks between the two leaders in context- it is happening about 10 years after the first elections to the constituent assembly of Nepal and that in these 10 years, we have had all sorts of ups and downs internally in Nepal and a series of unstable governments. The recent earthquake in Nepal was a huge setback in every way- also more importantly in the context of this visit, we have had a bunch of misunderstandings between the two countries in the last two years. These misunderstandings soured relations.
- In particular, the blockade on the border which was blamed totally on India, by the people of Nepal in general and also by the present PM Oli in particular, who in turn made a huge amount of electoral capital out of making India the scapegoat for all the hardships that followed the blockade. However, the main political takeaway appears to be that both sides seem to have agreed to have put that in the past; and to give signals of the importance that each country has for each other and move on towards a path of a genuine, cooperative relationship. We all talk about the unique relationship that India and Nepal have, but to actually concretely translate that into action with a serious of high profile projects that have been hanging fire for some time, including some new ones. It is important to note that the amount of goodwill that India should be the recipient of in terms of the projects that we do, in terms of the huge amount of development cooperation which has genuinely helped Nepal over the years often gets obscured by the sheer glacial pace with which implementation takes place. So, on a political front, this was a good visit and where it goes in the future, depends on implementation. The Madhesi issue was quietly shelved, but it is not going away.
- Further, it is important to note that resetting the ties is not a one-time process and that it is a gradual process. With the federal structure of Nepal now evolving slowly, the past firmly behind and the fact that PM Oli comes from a very strong and clear democratic mandate, and with a constitution in place, considering all these factors, Nepal can look towards a place of political stability which is necessary for resetting any ties or correcting the course.
- There have been many barriers between India and Nepal that have cropped up in the past 10 years- this visit shows an inclination from both sides towards the desire of sorting out these barriers. PM Oli felt that India was interfering in his affairs- for example, India was asking for a balanced constitution to be framed, whereas he thought that he had the right to frame a constitution which it wanted- irrespective of whether or not the minority groups were included or not. Secondly, PM Oli was greatly puffed up by using the China factor. These are the two issues which have not gone very well with India, in the sense that if the nationalism of Nepal is being used against India, then it hits at the very roots of India-Nepal relations because India has never looked at Nepal at an adversary. Nobody in India wants any harm done to Nepal in one way or the other. Also, if China uses its economic and infrastructure projects to encroach upon India’s strategic presence, then that is not acceptable to Delhi. These are some of the critical factors that face both the countries.
- Whether or not there is scope for cooperation for India and China in Nepal, we must realize that it all depends on political will; and that this is a choice that PM Oli has to face much more than the PM of India. PM Oli has come to power on the backbone of the idea of nationalism that has sprung largely against an ‘anti-Indian’ theme. We should realize that the anti-Indianism card was always used even by the erstwhile monarchs, notably the Ranas to cover up for their failings in Nepal. Under the Rana rule and the Shah rule, Nepal remained one of the most misgoverned countries of the world. So, India was made the convenient scapegoat to cover up for most of their ills. Thus, it is important that we don’t get too carried away by the recent anti-Indian rhetoric, as this has always been used by political circles in Nepal to garner cheap popularity in Nepal.
- Having said that, one must remember that Nepal is sandwiched between two Asian giants- India and China; PM Oli has the choice to completely tailor his policy to maintain the goodwill of his nationalist constituency taking all the help that he can get from China (which will be willingly given when we factor the recent aggressiveness and assertiveness as shown by China). Further, the idea of lasting peace and stability in Nepal is largely dependent upon its relations with India. The leadership in Nepal has fallen prey to temporary political compulsions and thus, they have largely ignored this important fact.
- Thus, if PM Oli is basing his policies on politicking and staying in power, with the kind of rhetoric he has nurtured where an anti-Indian rhetoric has formed a core, then not many positive things can be expected in terms of Indo-Nepal relations.
- India has got 6-8 million Nepali’s working in India and the government of India guarantees the exchange rate of the Nepali rupee.
- Somewhere even PM Oli realises that he is standing on thin ice although he has a clear mandate. This is because the left alliance of the CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre stands on a series of anomalies- and ideologically, they haven’t fully resolved their ideological differences.
- The broader population of Nepal is giving the current government of Nepal the benefit of doubt. There is a lot of pragmatism within the country. Whether the stance of the Nepalese government is anti-Indian or pro-Indian should be seen in the regional context and not in the global context.
- But, does India have an alternative developmental imagination that is suitable for small countries in the neighbourhood which are coming out of long and difficult war-like trajectories? Thus, the onus is on India as much as it is on Nepal to come out with an alternative vision for reconciliation and development.
- Although the delivery of projects by India has been at a snail’s pace- the intention of the government of India has been highlighted by PM Modi when he went to Nepal in 2014, and he even put timelines on some of the projects. Unfortunately, these projects have not been delivered. PM Modi had given a formula of ‘HIT’- standing for Highways, I-Ways and Transways- but these projects have not been implemented.
- So, while the neighbours of India are leaning towards China, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that China is leaning towards South Asia. Thus, even if Mr Oli wants to distance himself from the Chinese, would the Chinese let him do so easily? China has invested a lot of political capital as well as economic capital in Nepal- for example, 8.4 Billion USD has been invested in the cross-border rail. Would India be able to match such kind of projects?
The Way Forward:
- India must treat Nepal as a sovereign country that can make its own choices. If Nepal has to have productive, cooperative relationship with China; if Nepal would like to have economic relations with China, if it wants to accept Chinese aid and so on, then that is Nepal’s right. We should not fall into the trap of politics with Nepal that competes with Chinese influence in the region. India is situated well in terms of its cultural, geographical position with Nepal. Thus, India must make it very clear that she is not going to indulge in Nepal’s political dynamics and her internal setup.
- Whenever there is unrest in the Madhesi region, it spills over into India and that is a legitimate cause for us to express our concern. That is certainly not interference.
- Thus, it is important for both countries to treat each other with mutual respect. Thus the whole idea of tailoring our policy-making to factor Chinese influence in Nepal is a self-defeating measure. This is because we have a lot of things to do in Nepal which stand on their own feet.
- Lastly, we need to make it substantially clear to Nepal that its soil can in no shape or form be used in any way that is inimical to India’s security interests.
UPSC aspirants are advised to read the joint press-release available on the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) website. This would help place India-Nepal relations in a broader context. The links are as below:
Read more RSTV articles here.