The envoy and diplomacyA saner act would be self-introspection rather than blaming the neighbours.
While diplomacy can’t be sentimental, essentially it should be courteous. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s foreign secretary, was in Kathmandu last week, and it was indeed heart-warming to see how India’s top diplomatic envoy can speak fluent Nepali and understands the norms that safeguard India-Nepal relations. Shringla’s visit to Nepal followed two recent high-level visits from India by Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane earlier this month and Samant Goel, chief of India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) in the third week of October.
Without linking the visits to a common cause, the rapprochement from both sides should be welcomed. During the last three high-profile visits from India, Prime Minister KP Oli made himself available to meet the visiting officials, giving the required impetus to the partnership. What does it suggest? India is keeping business as usual and working on the projects undertaken before the China-originated coronavirus flattened the world, and the boundary issue suddenly found extra prominence. It would be too naive to say anything else of a significant nature has taken place in the partnership. Apparently, a choice makes a big difference either way.
Resuming air services
The Oli government had completely misunderstood a very crucial stage in history and abstained from pursuing ‘enlightened self-interest’ when China did everything possible to alter the boundaries of its neighbours. Reportedly, the Tourism Ministry has once again proposed resuming flight services to India more than one and a half months after its first proposal was rejected outright by the government amid soured relations with the southern neighbour over a boundary dispute. To keep an independent and balanced worldview, the most important virtue to be relied on is a ‘sense of proportion’.
Prithvi Narayan Shah called Nepal a ‘yam between two boulders’ referring to India and China. For British India, Nepal was a buffer zone between China and India. In the present time and context, by not aligning domestic policies with international affairs, Nepal has a better chance to practise a serious non-alignment policy. Remarkably, Nepal has a long history of sovereignty and independent status. Even nonconformists will not forget that the Gorkha Kingdom appealed to the British Empire for protection from a Chinese attack through Tibet. The first British mission came to Nepal in 1793 followed by the next one in 1802.
The collaboration didn’t last long, however, and the Anglo-Nepal War or Gorkha War (1814-16) was fought between the Gorkha Kingdom and the British East India Company. A British victory and the 1816 Sugauli Treaty ended the war. With the treaty, Nepal renounced its territorial claims on the Tarai, and parted with its conquests west of the Kali River that reached up to the Sutlej River. Nepal could retain its independence, though it had to be under the supervision of a British resident sent to look after the protectorate. Nepal succeeded in not letting the British resident be a ‘controlling agent’ of the British East India Company that ruled its immediate neighbour India.
In 2020, it is still worthwhile to look back and know well about the choices exercised by Nepal, and the glorious journey of overcoming the challenges. With hindsight, a saner act would be self-introspection rather than blaming the neighbours. The neighbours are not the ‘boulders’, Nepal is not a ‘yam’. In fact, it should not be a conduit for ‘bridge diplomacy’. As a country with immense possibilities and aspirations, Nepal should think of a free-spirited move in its foreign affairs. It should give ‘realism’ well-deserved traction. However, this should not be confused as a new system bound to overlook the conventional wisdom that helps in knowing friends and adversaries in difficult times.
As a matter of fact, Nepal can do without seeing India and China in comparison. This will be particularly helpful in avoiding any impending consequences, especially avoiding the risk of turning into a ‘geostrategic hotspot’ in South Asia. Nepal, a modern republic, should strengthen its democracy and democratise its institutions. It should underline a development strategy that has an inclusive nature. To bring it into action, a participatory model should be followed. For managing its affairs in the world with new vigour and progressive thinking, Nepal has to bring the home in order. Realising it will be a true diplomatic nicety.
The visit of the Indian foreign secretary will help India’s development partnership assistance to Nepal. It is expected that with the ongoing and potential infrastructure projects, connectivity between the two countries will see promising times ahead. Timing is particularly crucial for cooperation in coping with the existential challenges with Covid-19. As the first vaccine is about to be launched in India, Nepal can stay assured of all assistance from the southern neighbour.
Also, it is high time that economic cooperation was given its due to ensure a post-pandemic economic rebound. The bilateral engagement has to be proactive. Long-pending matters related to treaties and territories should get an official mechanism so they can be tabled and sorted out with a trust-based approach. Such matters should not stop Nepal’s top leadership from engaging with India and resuming flight operations with the required pandemic-related caution. The policies should have humane consideration. The unprecedented crisis merits a brave counter-response. In testing times like this, there is a need to work together to save lives and livelihoods. Nepal should reciprocate, and this will positively support millions of people across the border.
Without prefixing, the Indian envoy termed Nepal a ‘friend’ of India. In essence, a friend for all seasons. He said that not in the Queen’s language, but in chaste Nepali. He has reset the tone for benign diplomacy. This is the need of the hour and should be taken seriously. In equal measure, decision-makers of both countries should work on it and clear the fog. We all should rise to the occasion.