President Mukherjee’s Nepal Visit: Continuity or Change?

Pranab Mukherjee has just visited Nepal, the first visit of an Indian President to its neighbour in 18 years, an attempt to mend fences when bilateral relations hit a historical low.  During his visit, Mukherjee –the ceremonial head of India - “welcomed” the promulgation of the constitution which India had strongly opposed earlier. Similarly, in the soft power diplomacy realm, he made the important announcement of opening of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to Nepalese students.

However, Mukherjee’s undue indirect emphasis on Madhesi issue in the constitution was circumscribed by some leaders and the Nepalese mainstream media to India’s usual chauvinism vis-à-vis Nepal. The timing of Mukherjee’s visit did not help either, as it came at a time when Nepalese politics is reeling under a huge controversy regarding the impeachment motion at the parliament of the chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) Lokman Singh Karki, a controversial figure, who was staunchly backed by India both at his appointment and at his ousting process.

Moreover, PM Prachanda’s bizarre declaration of the public holiday for Mukherjee’s visit and a “curfew-like” security fueled the resentment in Nepal, with social media rife with anti-Indian statements. On the whole, despite some hype, the situation now resembles nothing else but the status quo ante, and the lackluster relationship seems to continue unchanged.

Having said that, however, the stressful bilateral relation is the outcome not so much of India’s behavior as it is of Nepal’s own messy state of affairs. Nepal is a country that has failed in almost every realm of governance. Public trust has hugely eroded. Nepal has been reduced to a remittance economy. Thousands of Nepalese toiling in the heat of Gulf and other corners have saved the countries’ economy from crashing down. Even in such conditions, in their insatiable thirst for power, political parties and individual leaders have flourished. Misuse of public funds and lack of transparency and accountability is rampant among politicians across the aisle.  People see politicians merely as corrupt and dishonest. Each party suffers from internal feuds and extreme factionalism. Nepalese politics has come to resemble the so-called Hobbesian state of nature in which nobody trusts anybody.  

Given such an unenviable state, just blaming India for everything is to hide one’s own weaknesses. The troubled bilateral relationship and the Madhesi grievances to a large extent are the corollary of Nepalese leaders’ own deeds. This is arguably one reason why China, unlike India, has a low-key approach in Nepal, aimed at avoiding politicizing its involvement.  Nepalese opinion also remains divided on whether to accept India’s big brother role as natural power relations and focus on bilateral cooperation; Nepalese also know that Chinese help will not be unconditional either.

As a trouble shooting, liberal thinkers in the region have always argued that regional cooperation and increasing economic integration can overcome the bilateral mistrust and open pathways for economic development and political stability. But the integrationists’ finely articulated policy documents often ignore the fact that structural conditions between EU (and its successful integration) and South Asia do not match. All those factors that helped EU succeed elude South Asia – Western Europe’s advanced economies, vanguard of liberal values, common outside threat, US support, common European identity, a peace project after devastating world wars etc.

By contrast, in South Asia, small states draw China into the game to balance India. And India would arguably prioritize integration only if it could get political mileage and consolidate its regional primacy against its security concerns and the global high table ambition. To put this in social science terms, the logic of consequences (cost-benefit calculations) is at play here, not the logic of appropriateness. Consequently, India has preferred a “controlled instability” (a theory advanced by Kantipur daily’s chief editor Sudheer Sharma) in Nepal so that it can push its agendas as it is doing now through PM Prachanda.

Moreover, India has preferred a piecemeal approach for Nepal in competing and responding to China’s overtures. For instance, as China’s advances towards Nepal under its Belt and Road initiative, India expedites Vizag port access for Nepal; as Chinese President expresses his interest to visit Nepal, Indian President comes after 18 years; as more and more Nepalese students fly north with growing Chinese scholarship, India announces access to IIT. One would wonder what it takes to make India give Nepal full access to Bangladesh via Siliguri corridor which Nepal always asked for and never got. But the question is how long such an approach will serve India given the fast-approaching China next door?

What would be desirable for Nepal now is for India to come up with a long-term planning to respond to Nepal’s trade and transit needs starting with an immediate and massive investment in upgrading the infrastructure of the bordering areas. Nepal’s grudge against India is not so much its interference as its limited capability to stabilize Nepal and to bring about economic development. 

Dr. Anil Sigdel is the Director of International Studies Program at the Advanced Research and Training Institute, Kathmandu, Nepal. He earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Vienna, Austria. He is based in Washington DC and can be reached at sigdela@artist.edu.np.