The Government has come a long way since May 26, 2014. At least three neighbouring countries that stood and applauded the new Prime Minister as he was sworn in have distanced themselves from India. Others have become more watchful. In no case is this more evident than in India’s relationship with Nepal.
Nepal has a special relationship with India. The two countries share a religious and cultural history. There is an open border. Nepali nationals fought alongside Indian soldiers in many wars and do so even today. The Gurkha regiment is known for its valour. There are an estimated six million Nepali nationals who live and work in India.
Since Nepal is a landlocked country, with India on three of the four sides, its outreach to the rest of the world is through India. The bulk of Nepal’s trade is with India. Most of its supplies come from India or through India.
India has been a good and benevolent neighbour. It has extended special trade concessions to Nepal. It has extended aid. It has encouraged Indians to visit Nepal. There are many families in the two countries who are tied by marriage.
The Nepali Congress party was seen as a sister organisation of the Indian National Congress with shared political values. The Communist Party of Nepal had close ties with the Communist Party of India and, later, with both the CPI(M) and the CPI.
The birth pangs
Since the monarchy in Nepal was replaced by a democratic structure, Nepal has gone through a very difficult period of transition. There have been many short-lived governments and many prime ministers. The Constituent Assembly struggled for many years to draft a Constitution. India extended strong support to Nepal in its endeavour to become a Constitutional Republic. During this period of instability and uncertainty, India did not waver in its support. Trade and commerce continued as before. Open borders remained open.
All this was reflected in the outpouring of joy when Nepal received Prime Minister Modi on his first official visit to Nepal. Mr Modi made a fine speech to Nepal’s Parliament. India-Nepal relations seemed to have touched a new high point.
How did that ‘high’ collapse to a point when all observers are agreed that Nepal-India relations seem to have reached the nadir?
Takeaway from conversations
A few days ago, I had occasion to meet some prominent businesspersons from Nepal. On a flight from Bengaluru to Delhi, Mr Kamal Thapa, Nepal’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, was seated next to me. The takeaway from my conversations (without attributing any particular statement to any particular individual) can be summarised as follows:
1. There are issues concerning the Madhesis, but India should allow Nepal the space and time to resolve those issues through negotiations. While espousing the cause of the Madhesis, India should not pit the Madhesis against the rest of the population.
2. A new Constitution has been adopted by Nepal’s Parliament. If it requires amendments, they can be made in due course after negotiations (just as the Indian Constitution has been amended over a hundred times).
3. There are about 112 constituencies where the Madhesis are dominant or have a significant presence. Only 11 MPs among them are opposed to the new Constitution.
4. There is one province that is comprised exclusively of Madhesi-dominated districts. They want another province with exclusively Madhesi-dominated districts. This is a matter that can be resolved through negotiation. It cannot be a cause for a blockade.
5. India intervened very late—beyond even the proverbial eleventh hour—to stop the adoption of the Constitution. When the Constitution was adopted nevertheless, India felt slighted, unjustifiably.
6. The people of Nepal—or certainly an overwhelming majority—believe that India has imposed the blockade and the Indian government has instructed suppliers, including Indian Oil, to stop supplies. Whatever may be the reality, that is the perception, and with the passage of time that perception is getting stronger.
7. Nationalist feelings in Nepal are riding very high, and the overwhelming majority of the people has turned against India. Even MPs elected from the Madhesi-dominated constituencies blame India for the blockade. That is why, despite four months of immense hardship and suffering, there is no protest by the people against the government of Nepal. They are determined to face the situation bravely.
8. With a seasoned politician as external affairs minister, a highly skilled and experienced diplomat as foreign secretary and an astute security expert as NSA, how did India commit grave tactical mistakes in dealing with Nepal?
9. India made the mistake of attempting belatedly to block the adoption of the Constitution. India made the mistake of opposing (silently) the election of Mr KP Sharma Oli as Prime Minister. India made the mistake of propping up Mr Sushil Koirala as a candidate for Prime Minister when Mr Oli was all set to offer Mr Koirala the Presidency.
10. Nepal expects Indian political parties and Parliament to assert themselves and direct a course correction before matters reach a point beyond repair.
Being a good neighbour
Parliament is in session. The Congress and the Communist parties that have an international outlook have a special responsibility to initiate a debate on India-Nepal relations. A message must go that India is a good neighbour and a reliable friend who will abide by the rules of engagement between neighbouring countries.