Return to the dialogue tableWhen governments fail to address contemporary problems, they resort to provocative nationalistic demagogy.
Several international studies have predicted precariously dire health and economic consequences looming large over South Asia due to the novel coronavirus-induced pandemic. Political imperviousness and chronic bad governance are likely to further complicate the problem. This is the time the region's political leaders must work together with undivided focus on the Covid-19 crisis, rising above all outstanding differences and putting aside contentious issues that warrant a long-term horizon to resolve.
Unfortunately, even in these difficult times, the political leadership in India and Nepal are engaged in the most anachronistic, undiplomatic and rabble-rousing border dispute that has remained as an outstanding issue for centuries. This is absolutely uncharacteristic of the neighbours that boast historically and culturally close ties with a uniquely open and unregulated 1,880-km-long international border, incomparable anywhere else in the world. The latest round of controversy was triggered after the inauguration of a motorable track by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 8. The track leads to a very popular multi-faith pilgrimage site surrounding Manasarovar lake in Tibet and passes through disputed territory in the far west of Nepal.
Public pressure had begun to build up against the government of Nepal to counter the Indian violation ever since India unilaterally published its new political map in November last year, including areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura claimed by Nepal as its own territory. Besides, New Delhi allegedly did not heed to Kathmandu's request, sent in November itself, to hold immediate talks on the issue. It is an unresolved issue between the two nations, also recognised as 'outstanding' by the unpublicised report of the Nepal-India joint Eminent Persons' Group (formed for a comprehensive study of issues of bilateral relations). The Nepal-India-China tri-junction still remains undecided which is also a testimony to the fact that it is indeed an unresolved border issue. Amid these raging controversies, the Nepal government published a new map of Nepal, incorporating these areas, on May 20.
World history has it that whenever governments of an ultranationalist and despotic tilt fall short of people's expectations and fail to address pressing contemporary problems in their respective countries, they more often than not resort to provocative nationalistic demagogy to take away people's attention from these problems.
For example, it is generally believed that when the approval rating of the United States president begins to fall, tensions in the Gulf, or now in Afghanistan, escalate. When the Indian government is pressed hard against its performance on the domestic front, it generally chooses to revive the Kashmir issue. This time around, in a similar pressing situation, it has chosen the frontier facing Nepal. Continued Indian excesses on issues related to Nepal, like the economic blockade in 2015, publication of the new map in 2019 and now the construction of a road on disputed territory, has also provided Nepal's Prime Minister KP Oli with an ultra-nationalistic plank to exploit the patriotic sentiments of the people of Nepal. In fact, India's road inauguration has come as a panacea to Oli, at a time when he was severely cornered even by his own Nepal Communist Party to the extent of his possible removal from the prime ministerial berth. Now, Oli has not only been successful in saving his seat but has also dragged opposition parties onto his nationalistic bandwagon. But his actions are less likely to constructively contribute to a resolution of the disputes and serve the national interest in the long run.
It cannot be mere coincidence that two days before Singh inaugurated the road, an international rating agency, Moody’s Investors Service, had slashed India's economic growth prospects for 2020 to a figure close to zero, from its one-month-old estimate of 2.5 percent. For the governments on both sides of the border, the controversy has served for them to divert the attention of the people, media and intelligentsia away from their comparable but blatant failure to take effective steps to contain the spread of the virus and adequately undertake measures to revive economic activities by smoothly ending the prolonged lockdown.
In both countries, millions have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Millions of enterprises, particularly small businesses, are on the verge of going bust. There is an impending danger of the masses that are clustered right above the poverty line falling back into the absolute poverty trap. A mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities to the villages without health checks, transportation facilities and food only exposed the poor governance. Acutely inadequate health services are already overwhelmed by the flow of Covid-19 patients. Poorly managed so-called quarantine centres are proving to be new epicentres for mass transmission. Bringing back millions of migrant workers languishing due to Covid-19-induced layoffs in the Gulf countries, Malaysia and other places pose a common challenge for governments in both countries.
Extremely poor awareness among the masses about both hand and respiratory hygiene that is considered key to containing the spread of the coronavirus is presenting a new danger to add to virus transmission at the community level. The mass media that is instrumental in both correcting government inefficiencies at every level and helping raise awareness among the masses is largely dancing to the tune of the ruler's nationalistic eulogy.
The Indian media is incessantly harping on about the completely unfounded idea of 'China's hand in Nepal's bid to publish a new map' while the Nepali media generally seems to have fallen prey to Oli's essentially unnecessary tantrums of amending the constitution and altering the 'coat of arms' of Nepal. The reality is that the map and the territorial claim can be established only after the borderline is resolved once and for all through due diplomatic process and agreement. In the virtual jungle of rabble-rousing rants, there is no space left for sane voices that want to dwell on nuanced, result-oriented and dialogue-led diplomacy.
The maps published by both sides incorporating the disputed territory can establish, once again, nothing more than the fact that it is disputed territory. They certainly serve as the basis for a bargain though. Also, border disputes between any neighbouring countries are commonplace phenomena everywhere. It is equally sensitive too. Therefore, there is no alternative to meaningful dialogue to resolve this issue on the basis of historical facts, treaties, evidences and existing ground realities. The concerned parties, at the same time, should be cautious that the entire agenda is not hijacked by callous and misinformed public opinion which in the process leaves no room for flexibility for official negotiators.
There are already signs of optimism as both sides have officially kept the doors for constructive dialogue open in their 'official' statements. That is exactly the way to go about. There are historical precedents in the region as well. Five years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, immediately after riding to power during his first tenure, constructively helped to resolve a complex border issue with Bangladesh that involved the transfer of 162 enclaves. There is no reason why a similar pattern of goodwill and magnanimity would not be forthcoming from a regional superpower like India while dealing with Nepal, which Modi himself calls the land of deities and the place of his own spiritual upliftment.
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