Paradigm shift needed in Nepal-India tiesAn apparent conflict has emerged because our foreign policies have not changed with the times.
Nepal's open border with India has become a symbol of its special relationship with the southern neighbour. In recent years, many people in Nepal and India are beginning to speak up about the need to close the frontier. Then there is the amplification of anti-India sentiments in Nepali society as well as Nepal's growing proximity to China. Together, these phenomena are taken as signs that Nepal does not have an open relationship with India any more.
However, the problem with Nepal-India ties is not that the relationship has changed, but that it has not changed enough. The apparent conflict in Nepal-India relations has emerged because our foreign policies have not changed with the times. In order to improve bilateral relations, vaccine diplomacy notwithstanding, India and Nepal need to implement a paradigm shift in their respective foreign policies.
In order to understand this sense of malaise—a feeling that all is not well with Nepal-India relations—we need to look into several internal contradictions. The first dynamic relates to the connection between Nepal's survival as a nation-state and its foreign policy, which is well known. This is the reason why Nepal has tried to balance as well as play China and India against each other. Many see this as a successful strategy... So far.
Another dynamics is the relationship between Nepali nationalism and the different identity groups within Nepal. The dominant nationalist identity in Nepal represents that of the Hindus of the hills. It does not represent all the ethnic groups, religions or even the Hindus of the plains.
A central contradiction was that until recent years, Nepal's ethnic groups and communities were not integrated or connected to each other horizontally. Because of the absence of infrastructures of connectivity, Nepal's economy and ethnic groups were only connected through India. This is why Nepal's nationalist sentiments have prioritised a process of integration. One example is the mid-hill highway running from the east to the west of Nepal.
The third dynamics is the relationship between political ideologies and its influence on political relationships. Since the 1950s, those with communist ideologies have opposed India and the United States, and preferred relations with China, Russia and even North Korea. Many Nepali people, socialised in a communist culture, find it difficult to like India or the United States.
The fourth dynamics is the nature of actual cross-border relationships. For many people living in the hills and southern plains, a border with India does not exist. People's lived experience, their livelihoods and their cross-border relationships are vastly different from the political border. In recent years, border management practices have tried to make the border more visible, and more difficult.
This gap between people's lived experience and state-centric political policies is apparent in media coverage of the border. If you look at the media, the Nepal-India border is rife with crime, human trafficking, floods, smuggling, terrorism and border disputes. Nepal's dominant nationalism sides with the state and drives a narrative of the border as a problem: A problem for national security, a problem for sovereignty, a problem for Nepali nationalism. A large chunk of the Nepali population and their lived realities have come into conflict with this narrative.
The fifth, and perhaps, the most important dynamics is the shifting relationship between the Nepali peoples (in plural) and the Nepali state. The Nepali state is usually dominated by the political elite who have failed to represent people's interests. Earlier, the Nepali people did not have a voice, and spoke out only occasionally. The state and the political elite could distort foreign policy and international relations to further their own political interests rather than that of the people. Things have changed; people have become more aware.
While the dynamics I have listed above are in a state of flux and have changed, the way Nepal and India handle their bilateral relations has not. Even the geopolitical environment is similar to what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. China remains a major factor. India's policy towards Nepal is dominated by notions of traditional security, strategic interests and cultural traits. The last one is also psychological.
While pursuing its interests, India chooses to deal with the political elite and use means that may not be democratic. India is able to push its interests or exact concessions because Nepal's political elite are only concerned about their own needs and desires. These interests are frequently in conflict with that of Nepal as a country and its peoples. When India seeks to further its interests by dealing with the political elite and using leverages, it can frequently harm the interests of the Nepali people. As a result, the conflict between the Nepali people and the Nepali state also becomes reflected in bilateral relations between India and Nepal.
Therefore, it is now time to create a paradigm shift in bilateral relations.
The first shift is to adopt a more democratic and transparent foreign policy. India needs to change its foreign policy, which is centred around Nepal's political elite, to a policy around the Nepali state and its people. India's foreign policy must be people-centric.
Secondly, India and Nepal need to move away from the idea of traditional security and hard power to the idea of dynamic connectivity. Traditional security depends on creating a secure but static environment. Now is the time to make a shift to a state of dynamic equilibrium, a foreign policy that is flexible to change. It is difficult, because it requires knowledge and efficiency. The notion of connectivity relies on creating infrastructures and technology that facilitate the flow of people, goods and ideas.
The third shift is from unilateral and hegemonic policies to ones that are mutual and cooperative. Foreign policy movers and shakers will tell us that they are already doing so. But these idealist narratives do not reflect the realities on the ground. In addition, they fail because of the fourth factor.
The fourth shift concerns good policies and their efficient implementation. Nepal and India need to make a transition to efficiency. Currently, public or foreign policies are mismanaged. Development projects that are intended to develop relations end up harming them.
Relations between Nepal and India have not worsened, they have merely failed to change with the times. Our relationship only appears to have worsened because our foreign policies have failed to take into account the changes taking place in our societies, especially the relationship between the people and the nation-states.