Nepal-India relations: Some thoughts
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on August 20, 2011
By Gopal Thapa
Nepal’s India policy, too, is inconsistent, incoherent and bereft of national consensus. Whatever policy we may have is also characterised by excessive dominance of incompetent, visionless and opportunist geriatric political leaders, and supine and petrified bureaucracy.
One of the longtime Nepal-India relations observers, Dr. S.D. Muni has listed the constant and strategic variable as two fundamental elements influencing relations between the two countries. He calls history, geography and culture as the “constant”, and the social, political and economic elements as “strategic” variables. Ability to balance these elements, he argues, can result in the most harmonious relations between the two countries. He sees less of a problem in the constant elements than those from the strategic ones.
To some extent, these arguments sound tenable. Nevertheless, they fail to capture the contemporary realities and the changes of profound magnitude our relations have undergone in the last two decades, beginning the 90s, to be specific. Even as we emphasise the similarity of history and geography, we often fail to focus on the range of inherent differences that our relations are informed of. The sheer territorial and population size of India is an element of awe for Nepal. The level of economic development, social awakening, educational progress and the maturity of democratic institutions there are other fear – escalating factors. Nepal is surrounded by India on three sides. Her economic and trade relations are always skewed towards India. In terms of culture as well, Indian visibility is ubiquitous. For example, Indian films and television serial programs have, of late, literally inundated every Nepali home. Even ads for Nepali products have had notorious Indian impacts. These realities have largely shaped our perceptions about India and have consequences, good and bad, on our overall relations. No doubt, both countries have recognised the differences. However, it must be said that both have been unable to take advantage from the similarities, nor have there been serious and genuine attempts, at removing the lingering perceptions of differences, more from Nepal and equally from India, too. In Nepal, particularly, India-bashing and genuflexion, has been the main weapon for some political parties to show their relevance. India’s handling of relations is also quite flawed, as is admitted by many independent thinking Indian intellectuals. One must not, therefore, lose sight of the fact that the refrain of cultural and historical closeness and geographical proximity alone wouldn’t make much of a sense unless accompanied by serious and practical efforts on the ground to render our relations more productive and mutually beneficial.At a crossroads
As far as Nepal is concerned, the general perception is that more than six decades of her close and extensive engagements with India have failed to institutionalise democracy and democratic institutions, bring about peace, political stability and most importantly, economic prosperity. The historic janandolan-2 replaced the “multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy” system of governance with that of a Federal Democratic Republic . However, the promise of a new Nepal under the Republic dispensation has so far remained a mere pipe dream. On the contrary, Nepal‘s, national independence, sovereignty and stability had never been threatened as much as they have now been. A detached introspection on the Nepal’s current situation presents a rather dismal picture. The mood of common people is one of anger, frustration and disillusionment over the interminable delay and continued failure to complete the agendas of peace and constitution drafting , so vital for ushering in a new Nepal and also for the consolidation of the gains of janaandolana-2. Today, one of the many questions haunting the minds of the same people that came out on the street in a drove in support of the Janaandolan-2 is; “The former king did make serious errors by directly overtaking, but he already paid too dear a price for that. But did the country gain anything out of the changes? Nepal’s peace and stability would have perhaps remained secure under the two pillar theory, based on multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy”.
This may sound unpalatable to our political leaders whose preferred predilection has been to claim a wholesale credit for bringing about the changes, without concurrently owning up the mess they have created. All the same, truth must be told, however bitter it may taste. Having sacrificed the institution of monarchy and parliamentary democracy in the name of a better political dispensation, which is nowhere in sight, Nepal stands at a crossroads today unable to define its future course. Today, the peace process India helped to broker is in danger of losing its moorings and the leaders of the very party it helped to propel in power seem to have turned against it. In retrospect, it can be fairly assumed that the royal takeover in 1960, the demolition of “multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy” system of governance as practiced after the restoration of democracy in 1990 and the current state of anarchy that Nepal is going through are partially the consequences of the inconsistent and ambivalent Indian policy pursuit in Nepal.
Nepal-India relations, continue to smart under a benign apathy, or neglect of Indian political leaders in power, as well as the Indian bureaucracy’s brash, inflexible, inconsistent and intolerant behaviors. One of the glaring examples of such neglect is the absence for a long time of bilateral visits to Nepal by any of the Indian Prime Ministers, since 2002. Even that visit in 2002 was not bilateral. The then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to attend the Eleventh SAARC Summit in Kathmandu! On the contrary, every Nepali Prime Minister invariably makes his first visit to India. When the UCPN-M Chairman Prachanda, as Prime Minister, visited China before India, there was reportedly a great resentment in Indian establishment, which many speculate- albeit without credible ground- cost him eventually the PM chair. This is yet another element of imbalance in our bilateral relations, apart from other existing asymmetries. Periodic exchange of high-level visits are the important features of maintaining good diplomatic relations, and more so in the neighborhood relation management. Such visits do offer an informal venue for frank exchange of views on a wide array of issues, thereby contributing to a better understanding of each others aspirations and expectations.
Nepal’s India policy, too, is inconsistent, incoherent and bereft of national consensus. Whatever policy we may have is also characterised by excessive dominance of incompetent, visionless and opportunist geriatric political leaders, and supine and petrified bureaucracy. In the absence of a consensus policy, each political party attempts at defining Nepal-India relations from the standpoints of its own personal and party interest. The tendency quite common among many of our political parties of praising India to the sky when things are favorable and blaming her when things go against them is due mainly to the lack of a coherent and bipartisan foreign policy. Frequent exhibition of such a short-sighted and selfish attitude to interpret our bilateral relations according to their whims is responsible to a great extent for generating misunderstanding, thus putting our bilateral relations under constant strains.
It is often said and rightly so, that Nepal – India relations have symbiotic characters. India has a vital stake in the peace, and political stability of Nepal. Likewise, Nepal’s peace, prosperity, economic development, democracy and democratic institution consolidation efforts are in a great measure contingent upon Indian cooperation, assistance, goodwill and understanding. Hence, our efforts have to be to win India’s confidence through the demonstration of consistent, credible and mature behavior. India’s influences have grown over the years, not only in Nepal but also in the entire South Asian region. This is but natural for reason of its rapidly emerging as a global economic power. It is a common phenomenon in international relations that no sooner a particular country gains internal strength than its external power projection becomes a necessary fact. It is true that power and success are difficult to attain, but once achieved they are invariably accompanied by equally formidable challenges and threats, both internal and external. Recent events have shown that India’s internal security, peace, stability and democracy have come under tremendous threats along with its increase in economic, political and military clout. Its legitimate security concerns and security sensitivities have, therefore, definitely gone up requiring it to exercise greater vigilance at home and within its neighborhood. As a long-time and dependable neighbor, Nepal must recognise and seek to accommodate the legitimate Indian security concerns, as far as possible. But in doing so, we must place our own national interest protection needs at the center. We must ensure that in no way should our cooperation come at the expense of our own vital national interests.
Balanced and harmonious relations require bold, imaginative and out-of-box thinking. Indian politicians in power shouldn’t leave as important relations as ours entirely at the whims and vagaries of their bureaucracy. In the future, India’s policy on Nepal must be informed by greater tolerance, flexibility and consistent pattern of behavior. Nepal, on the other hand urgently needs to ensure political stability and peace. A foreign policy that enjoys national consensus, particularly on India and China, has to be forged without further delay. Our new India policy must remove all the inconsistencies and ambivalences and aim at prioritising our agendas for a long-term and constructive bilateral engagement, with a new vision and thinking. On the basis of these new thinking, both countries can and should begin to build a new architecture of relations which would be based on genuine partnership, and which would, among others, make efforts for democracy and democratic institution consolidation in Nepal , expedite economic development, particularly by harnessing Nepal’s abundant water resources for mutual economic benefits, focus on better management of our open and porous border to render it more of a boon than a bane and promote greater interface between intellectuals of both countries for free and frank exchange of ideas and information on the crucial areas of our interests.
(Gopal Thapa is former Chief of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org)