Nepal’s new prime minister Sher Bdr. Deuba just wrapped up his five-day state visit to India along with his jumbo team of ministers, bureaucrats, and business persons. Although an established tradition of first goodwill visit to India that every new Nepalese PM now does, this visit was more significant because the timing coincided with an important turn in Nepal’s domestic politics especially regarding the Madhesis. While the two prime ministers met, Nepal was beset with inundation at home, and there was the standoff between Indian and Chinese military at Doklam in Bhutan-Tibet border.
The Modi government has definitely taken the right initiative in encouraging frequent high-level engagement that is enabling both countries to build trust and deepen the engagement in different areas of public and private sectors and increase people-to-people contact. Although the eight MOUs signed during the visit were perhaps not so significant, the state visit definitely has added value to the bilateral relationship. However, despite the fact that there was a clear urge in New Delhi to further strengthen India-Nepal relations mainly due to the freefall in India-China relations, India was still not willing or prepared to break new ground in the relationship to secure its long-term interests with its neighbor.
India opted to continue its traditional policy of enticing Nepal by pledging more aid or committing to expedite development projects so that Nepal would continue to act in India’s terms regarding its security concerns. India’s desire to show off regional primacy –real or imaginary- for its domestic consumption, and to some extent for its international image, and right now mainly vis-a-vis China, contextualizes PM Deuba’s recent statements on the Nepalese constitution. To make the matter worse for India, the popularity of Nepalese leaders with whom India has to deal is at the lowest these days for their extremely power-centric style of politics. This is not necessarily India’s fault, but because of that even good gestures and genuine efforts from India to improve the relations can end up working against India’s image, leaving a plenty of space to grow anti-Indian constituencies in Nepal. The India fatigue was palpable in Nepal as PM Deuba, the fourth-time prime minister infamous for his insensitivity towards the people and his rude style, was about to fly to New Delhi.
Nepal and India should have a harmonious relationship by now as the bilateral relationship is 70 years old, but the recent bitter experiences have antagonized yet another generation in Nepal. But now it is even more complicated. China has largely cemented its influence in Nepal and it will not be wise to just underestimate it as an “irritant” or a “card” but in a way a permanent counterweight to India. In fact, the China factor made many tense in Delhi when PM Deuba responded to Minister Ram Bilas Yadav’s comment at the India Foundation by saying that Nepal has a good relationship with China and Nepal does not face any problem from China, and that India must not have any doubts about that. Similarly, there was reportedly a lot of pressure on Nepalese side as Indians were insisting on inserting more security related phrases in the joint statement, presumably in relation to the Doklam standoff, which in the end did not appear in the communique.
There is also a clear disconnect among Indian governmental bodies, and between the center and the state agenciesas there has been no immediate, effective and coordinated actions on Nepal matters when they were the most needed. Just weeks before Deuba’s visit to India, India’s BSF’s ad-hoc security checking at Sunauli was creating havoc, causing huge traffic jams for weeks that led to the disruption of all business and trade activities, import and export, and significantly reducing revenue collections. In fact, exactly at the time Deuba and Modi were talking in Delhi, all the merchandise vehicles in Jogbani had come to a complete halt due to the damages in roads and railways from recent flooding. And due to the lack of timely action from Patna authorities, Nepal was unable to use optional border points to let the traffic flow in due time.
Similarly, due to the recent inundation in the south, the debate about the consequences of Koshi River damn, the Koshi treaty’s injustice to Nepal, and the Indian structures across the border re-surfaced in the public sphere. But the inundation issue was only a part of the casual conversations in Deuba’s Delhi visit and only yielded some token assurances from India. It is interesting while Delhi does not see Madhes politics through Kathmandu’s eyes, water-related disaster in Madhes does not seem to be India’s direct concerns. Furthermore, in Nepal foreign policy and domestic politics has got so mixed up now, this is also a problem for India, and largely India itself is responsible for that. And top of all that, now there are speculations about India getting more involved in taking sides in the Nepalese politics and making a coalition between the Nepali Congress, the Maoist and the Madhesis to counter the Oli’s UML. But again, that will be a short-term gain and long-term harm for India. Don’t isolate Oli, don’t forget that out of the total votes casted in Nepal the majority go to communist parties.
Given the entry of China into the region and the potential hazards emanating from that, both Nepal and India should not shy away from openly discussing the bilateral “taboo topics.” From reviewing the relevance of past treaties on river dams and canals in the new environmental context, the future of Nepalese soldiers in Indian Army’s Gorkha Rifles, the Indo-Nepal treaty (some talks did happen),or Kalapani and Lipulekh, India should seek to fully engage with Nepal if it wants to neutralize grievances there. It goes without saying that India should drop the policy option of leveraging Nepal’s import dependence on India to pressure Nepal, as it has been a sore spot in their relationship.
India should carefully estimate the relationship between Nepal and China and their people, and make policies considering the future scenarios rather than indulging in the past policies. The sovereign Nepal’s desire to have close relationship with China and have Chinese investment is nothing unreasonable, just as India has Chinese investments too, to recall Modi’s Gujrat and China relations. And yes, leveraging India’s soft power, like its academic institutions, to get the new generation Nepalese close to India is useful, but not enough. Freebies and goodies will keep Nepal into its fold is increasingly seen as the continuity of India’s narrow thinking; Nepal has just denied to extend the Indian Embassy’s direct investment agreement which was in place since 2003.
Finally, the time has come that India should, though painful, redefine its relationship with Nepal.