Structural shifts in Nepal’s India policy: New Delhi should continue to engage more

The use of anti-India sentiment is an old stratagem used by Nepalese politicians to assert their own relevance and divert attention away from the real problems facing Nepal, writes Shakti Sinha for South Asia Monitor

Shakti Sinha Jul 09, 2020

The events at Ladakh coming soon after the denouement of Nepal’s cartographic adventure has confused many Indian strategic analysts, particularly on where things went wrong in Nepal. What most analysts have not been properly appreciated is that Prime Mister K.P. Sharma Oli has, over time, engineered a structural shift in Nepal-India relations that would be hard to reverse. A number of people have blamed the government of India, particularly the present Narendra Modi government, for having lost ‘Nepal’. Former union minister Karan Singh, related to the former royal family of Nepal and who during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime had facilitated the end of monarchy in that country, blamed Prime Minister Oli for going ahead with his controversial move but also pilloried the Modi government for not engaging diplomatically with Nepal on the issue. Are these critics correct? Could Nepal have been persuaded not to go ahead with map-making? And where does India go from here? 

Just when Nepal’s upper house of Parliament was to deal with the Constitutional Amendment Bill on the boundary issue, a prominent Delhi English paper had put out a big news item on the front page that India had decided to go the diplomacy route. However, the story itself did not quote any formal statement and seemed more speculation than authoritative. Did the writers of that piece expect the Nepali establishment to back out of their provocative process just when it was to be formally wrapped up? The government of India has been far more circumspect and calm. Other than point out that Nepal’s moves on the boundary issue were in violation of the factual position, Delhi has kept a low profile, with the Indian media seemingly more involved than the government in reacting to Oli’s move. 

Oli’s latest move in trying to make it difficult for Indian brides from getting the citizenship of their Nepali spouses, quoting India’s amendment of its citizenship laws, seems malicious for it actually targets the Madhesi - people of Indian ancestry residing in the Terai of Nepal - community and not India. But it does help Oli burnish his anti-India credentials even if the reference to India’s citizenship laws was completely mischievous. 

Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has also announced that his government is almost doubling the number of new checkpoints on the Nepal-India border, from 121 to 221. Even as all this was going on, in an incident at a border crossing near Sitamarhi (Bihar) Nepal’s border guards shot down an Indian citizen and injured two others as the former sought to prevent entry into Nepal. The reality is that thousands cross the borders both ways, for business and employment reasons. Traditional close familial relations and cross-border land ownership is a feature of what has been an open border till now. 

The first step taken by the present Nepali government was to ‘normalise’ the entry of Indian visitors to Nepal. Earlier, the production of any valid government ID by an Indian was the only document required to enter Nepal. This was the most obvious, public demonstration that the Nepal-India relationship was not like other inter-state relations, and at Kathmandu airport this stood out. This requirement was quietly changed to the production of passport for air passengers - a very small change and one which went totally unnoticed. It is still not possible to enforce it in the land crossings but the establishment of additional controlled crossings, proposed changes in the citizenship laws and the current use of the pandemic to restrict and make difficult cross-border movement should be seen in this light. Each of these steps, seemingly insignificant in itself, is meant to break what is referred to in Madhes as "roti-beti-ka-rista" (a symbiotic relationship).

Anti-India sentiment

The Nepalese political elite, centered in the Kathmandu valley, is almost one on this issue of bringing to an end this special, cultural, people-to-people links that bind the two nations. The use of anti-India sentiment is an old stratagem used by Nepalese politicians to assert their own relevance and divert attention away from the real problems facing Nepal. Successive Indian governments have allowed themselves to be persuaded by generations of Nepalese politicians that their anti-India rhetoric was only for public consumption. The result has been that the default public position of Nepalese politics has been anti-India, with the public buying into this. An anti-India momentum gathered steam after the adoption of the constitution and the effects of the blockade and helped brought Oli to power in 2018. However, it would pay lesser and lesser dividends since the real problems of social inclusion, economic growth, wider political participation, and the devolution of powers were not being adequately addressed. 

Rumblings within his own party threatened Oli’s position. He was rescued after China publicly stepped into the picture, with Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari; the Chinese ambassador having had to do the heavy lifting to keep the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) together behind Oli, however temporarily.

The boundary dispute was therefore a brilliant, tactical move by Oli to achieve two goals. One, keep his detractors within the party from toppling him. Two, of creating such a dispute that future governments of India and Nepal would find difficult to resolve. Whether Oli or any other hardliner is in power is irrelevant, the fact is that no Nepali government would be in a position to either obtain these territories from India or to reverse the constitutional amendment. A permanent chokepoint is Nepal-India relations has been created.

India must continue to engage 

Looking ahead, India must look at Nepal beyond Oli, and even beyond the China factor. The latter is here and India should not even try and match the incentives that China offers. Instead, India must engage Nepal’s political and social spectrum on a sustained basis. Intelligence agencies, while needed, are not a substitute, for political and diplomatic engagement. Nepal and other neighbours often fall out of our horizon until a crisis happens. There are bilateral irritants that India must sort out, for e.g., the holding of high-denomination notes by the Nepal Rashtra Bank. Prime Minister Modi had successfully intervened in the past, but the present issue dates to demonetisation and is unnecessarily holding back bilateral ties. The Arun III power project should be expedited and the Mahakali project should finally see the light of the day. 

Away from big projects, there are 14 power exchange points (33/66KV) between the two countries, which should be made fully functional 24x7 so that local electricity shortages are dealt with and the Terai region can take off economically. Academic exchanges involving universities and think tanks should be encouraged so that both sides have a better understanding of each other’s political points of view.

Prime Minister Modi began his tenure announcing his ‘neighbourhood-first’ initiative. The success of this policy is a minimum requirement as India moves to play a larger role internationally. Occasional setbacks should not discourage India and it must put its money where its mouth is. 

(The writer is Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, MS University, Vadodara. The views expressed are personal.)

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