Hit You Where It Hurts: Nepal-India Relations

Nepal’s new Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda paid his first foreign visit to India in the hope of improving the bilateral relationship that went through a rough patch recently. Prachanda’s state visit came amidst suspicions about his possible acquiescing to India’s demands that might draw Nepal further into India’s fold. In India, the Modi government put its faith in Prachanda to settle differences and move forward.

As expected, as a 25-point joint statement was released in New Delhi, Prachanda was lambasted in Nepal. While some went overboard in interpreting several points in the political communiqué in a negative vein, including his former fellow comrade Baburam Bhattarai, many seemed to agree that Prachanda made a serious mistake on a constitutional matter. The fact that Nepal’s internal matter –constitution writing— was included in the joint statement has reinforced India’s meddling into Nepal’s domestic affairs. Moreover, aside from the fanfare of state visit, there has not been concrete progress in areas that have long been Nepal’s concern—no measures on reducing trade deficit, no agreements on air space, etc.

Therefore, the visit seems to be a political marriage between Indian PM Modi and PM Prachanda. The latter, unlike in his first PM term when he was the leader of the biggest party CPN-Maoist in the constituent assembly-I, has now been reduced to the leader of a party that trails behind Nepali Congress and UML with a huge margin. Prachanda has been substantially weakened due to several splits in his party; even the party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai left him and formed his own party called “Naya Shakti”. Despite his ultimate aim of being in power, Puspa Kamal’s popularity has been hugely decreasing and, judging by the way he fared in the constituent assembly-II elections, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he is a politician with hardly any constituency. Moreover, his gesture to India has further tarnished his image in Nepal. He is also heavily criticized in his own party over several points of the communiqué.

Under these circumstances, regardless of what promises Prachanda made to woo India, the hope that he would be able to take everyone on board to solve a seemingly intractable Tarai-Madhes problem remains doubtful. The president of the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Upendra Yadav, a major Tarai-Madhes based party leader, worries about the fact that Prachanda’s pace to address their problem is already disappointing. Moreover, how long he will remain favorable to India by keeping China at bay in the face of domestic and Chinese pressure remains to be seen. After all, although he did visit India first, he could not do so without sending one of his Cabinet ministers to Beijing.  In fact, he was the one who chose to get closer to China in his first term, although now he claims it was an immature decision.

Modi, for his part, was keen to reach out to Nepal before it becomes too late, and at the same time wanted to get across the messagethat India’s position on Nepal regarding the Tarai-Madhes issue has not changed (although some hints are emerging that it might); for these purposes he found Prachanda handy for now. However, although India has succeeded in its scheme, it must not overlook the fact that these political machinations have not helped improved India’s image among ordinary citizens in Nepal, rather the opposite. As a prominent public intellectual in Nepal puts it, “India continues to hit Nepalese exactly where it hurts.” 

India’s regional security concerns with high stakes in Nepal are often manifested in heavy-handedness that end in a zero-sum game. Its concerns are reasonable, but India should try and address them not through heavy-handedness, but through bilateral and regional mechanisms. If India emphasizes “fraternal relationship” with Nepal, it should be able to show magnanimity and accept Nepal’s relationship with China and others. The close affinity between Indians and Nepalis, if managed well, is the asset for India to match China’s economic prowess.

One way Modi could manage this, as he prioritizes neighborhood policy, is by bringing dynamic Indians with 21st century world view for Nepal policy in New Delhi and in the Embassy of India in Kathmandu. He also needs to oversee bilateral matters through official diplomatic channels rather than through parallel, unauthorized tracks. India must convey its good will and its concerns to the Nepalese people openly, leaving no room for suspicions and for domestic groups to do politics by demonizing India or over-exploiting it, whether it is about Hindu religion, security concerns, water resources or Western powers’ presence. India should encourage more visits -- official and unofficial— between two countries at all levels in which Modi government has already done a remarkable job. At the same time, it must internalize that, given the truly unique relationship Nepal and India have, Nepalese (irrespective of their ethnic identities) cannot be anti-Indians and can never harm India’s interests.