Nepal and India: Interdependence dynamicsThe two countries must consciously move towards a relationship aimed at interdependence.
While writing this final and the 101st fortnightly column, I notice six far-reaching changes unfurling in South Asia. Firstly, India-Nepal relations are once again warming up and ascending to a newer height. The tumultuous slide down had hit rock bottom. Secondly, India is largely able to put forth stiff terms of negotiation with China on issues of border skirmishes. Thirdly, the fruition of esoteric ideas like Indo-Pacific and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has the potentiality to reorient the geopolitical alignments and regional responses in Asia. Fourthly, India’s exit from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signals a new variety of economic competition and intra- and inter-regional decoupling wars. Fifthly, the novel coronavirus, while dismantling the state constructed geographical borders triggered a variety of human borders wherein far away from military and economic powers, the multinational pharmaceutical laboratories and individual vaccine inventors are emerging as new global messiahs. And finally, the end of the unpredictable, directionless and unreliable Trump regime in the US has rekindled the hope that multilateral institutions would be allowed to act freely once again.
At the core of all these newer trends, the decisive factor has been the repositioning of the philosophy of interdependence. And the central dissipating agent is the sharp erosion of faith in the dictum of dominance along with critical questioning of the vanguards of dependency propagators.
India-China cooperation diversified, deepened and consolidated during the last three decades. However, it took a sharp turn to the dependence of India on China. The total volume of Sino-India trade increased from a mere $3.4 million in 1970 to $2.8 billion in 2000 and to a whopping $90.16 billion in 2018. This led to a colossal trade deficit of $53.56 billion in 2018-19 with China. Around 70 percent of India’s active pharmaceutical ingredients, 80 percent of solar imports and 30 percent of its power equipment come from China.
Smaller countries react to dominance in a different way. Nepal, after facing the acute degree of dependency impact as demonstrated by the 1989 and 2015 economic blockades imposed by India, consciously moved towards China. This was despite tough geographical terrains, established distance in cultural ecology and incomparably wider and deeper historical and day-to-day relations with India. Even the economic superpowers do not tolerate their sliding towards dependency. They react violently and in a sweeping manner. They use sophisticated instruments like decoupling and even do away with multilateral institutions they themselves nurtured and built. The US attempt to make Chinese goods face high tariffs in its domestic market and the literal run down of the World Trade Organisation are examples. The Japanese government has set aside $2 billion as incentives for its companies in China shifting production back to Japan.
It is historically observed that when the dominant partner makes the other reach a particular threshold of dependence, coercive activities by the former tend to increase. Though these provocative actions invariably tend to fall below the level of conflict, they do generate visible psychological damages and also galvanise ultra-nationalism. US economic assistance to the Mujahideen in Pakistan to fight against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and the subsequent event of killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by its Navy SEALs near Islamabad in 2011 have been vivid examples.
India and Nepal have to consciously move towards a relationship aimed at interdependence. These two countries have the strongest basis, rarest determining variables and unparalleled win-win matrices of interdependence. These variables range from culture to environment, water to open border, education and health to employment, biodiversity to a traditional knowledge base, technology to institutions and disaster to climate change management. The interdependence dynamics demand recognising each other’s sovereignty and identity, promoting congenial constituencies and instruments, detaching their interactions and actions from third countries and making bold, far-reaching and inclusive moves.
Sovereignty and identity is size, power and alignment neutral. Sovereignty cannot be understood and interpreted through the angle of constituents of national power. India must recognise this core aspect of Nepal’s sensitivity. Nepal while freeing itself from the conventional box of small nation syndrome may consciously delink its sharing of resources like river water with the erosion in its sovereignty and national power.
Both countries have recorded a sharp decline in their respective constituencies in each other’s countries. For almost 50 years since 1950, Nepal had a strong constituency in India and vice versa. These constituencies spread from academics to writers, media to farmers, politicians to sportspersons, students to social activists, traders and industrialists to tourism agencies and professionals to cultural institutions. They absorbed the shocks of any bilateral downswings and stoutly advocated the upswings. These critical yet vanishing constituencies are today replaced by pariah commentators, superficial experts, fly-by-night operators and non-institutionalised agencies.
Why must India and Nepal consider China, the US and other countries in their relationship of such intimacy and interconnectedness? Over the years their actions are appearing to be more reactions to what other countries pronounce and denounce. A Nepali national working far away in Goa and an Indian in Pokhara cannot relate to this phenomenon of tagging and pegging with third countries as, for both of them, China and the US are far away, and farfetched too. What matters to them is a smooth border crossing for their livelihood and growth. They cannot relate cross border environmental injury caused by the Koshi and the use of education and hospital amenities in each other’s country with China and the US. For them, third-country consideration is a state construct drawn primarily from the realist paradigm of dominant and subtle power as prompted by the countries in the North to keep the Global South ever dependent. India and Nepal, being both copartners in the South-South Cooperation and Non-Aligned Movement, must keep these countries out which historically remained outside this conglomeration.
India must move into out of box matrix and zero-sum diplomacy. The key lies in India providing several alternative routes and market access to Nepal including through its India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. This amounts to India negotiating and facilitating the incorporation of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal in India’s Act East Policy and Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ mission. Besides other pivots like mountain ports and climate change cooperation, they could harness richly impending hydel power resources for cross border electricity trade through a common pool in the North East region of India.
This is where the forthcoming visit of India’s Foreign Secretary to Nepal acquires unprecedented importance. Harsh Vardhan Shringla commands a new genre of respect, confidence and authority in Indian diplomacy. Besides working under the close stewardship of both the prime minister and the foreign minister, he has demonstrated effective skills to deliver something big and bold. An astute diplomat, Shringla’s ability to grasp and reposition bilateral interests has been widely applauded in Bangladesh, the Maldives, Thailand and the US. His visit could pave the way for an early political confabulation between Prime Ministers Modi and Oli to revisit, renegotiate and reposition the age-old ties once again. A warm goodbye to all the readers of my column and warmest thanks to all in the Post. I deeply enjoyed and cherish my association with this prestigious daily.
Having written for the Post as a columnist for over five years, this is Lama’s 101st and last column.