The visible handEither stoking anti-India sentiments or playing the China card is not a viable strategy for Nepal
On September 20, Nepal finally got its much-awaited ‘people’s constitution’. But sadly, its promulgation has divided the nation and riled one of Nepal’s giant neighbours. As a result, India has ‘unofficially’ imposed a blockade on Nepal. In particular, it has restricted the passage of petroleum products. While there are many aspects to this issue—questions of Indian interference, legality and appropriateness of such a blockade—this article analyses how Nepal enabled India to intervene in its affairs and the Nepali response to it.
All pervasive India
A couple of days before the declaration of the new constitution, India sent a special representative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, S. Jaishankar, in an ill-timed last-ditch effort to delay the promulgation of the document and seek some amendments. The efforts failed to have the desired effect. Following the promulgation of the constitution, India gave a cold response by ‘noting’ the event and spent almost 70 percent of its statement highlighting its concerns about the political developments in southern Nepal. It was also followed by an unofficial economic blockade on Nepal. Instead of the HIT—Highways, Information Technology and Transmission lines—formula suggested by Modi in his speech in Nepal, India has ‘HIT’ Nepal with an economic blockade.
Such a move by India is neither new, nor can it be expected to be the last. Indo-Nepal relation is similar to a bad marriage where a wife depends upon an abusive husband to provide for her. The wife can neither walk away nor is she capable of being independent. Nepal is greatly dependent on India both politically and economically, which are interlinked, more than the Nepali public is willing to accept. This gives India unprecedented leverage. Politically, India influences Nepal through Nepali politicians, many of whom are willing to forgo all principles to curry favour with India. Economically, India knows that the Tarai is the choke-point of Nepal’s economy. Now that the Madhesi leaders are gaining more prominence, its focus on the plains is no coincidence. Therefore, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone when an Indian newspaper printed the seven-point demands of the Madhes-based parties as India’s demands. This is in no way implies that people in the Tarai are not loyal to Nepal. But when the country is divided, it is easier for the external powers to intervene by controlling certain choke points.
Given our dependency on India, it is mere wishful thinking to assume that India would not have any say in our constitution. Granted, it might be a wrong-headed policy (even some Indians are criticising the move), our response to it has not been optimal either.
First, Nepal responded the way it we usually does by stoking the flames of ‘nationalism’—which is essentially anti-India sentiment. This was expected given the ever-present anti-India sentiment among Nepalis and the additional hardships brought about by the crippling blockade. But Nepalis seem to have been carried away by emotions. Prachanda spoke of ‘cycle nationalism’. The PM in waiting, KP Oli, asked the Indian ambassador to Nepal to ‘mind his own businesses’. And #BackoffIndia was trending on Twitter.
On the one hand, these anti-India tactics are not new. Political parties have played the ‘anti-India’ card many times in the past, especially when they have been on the receiving end or in the opposition in Parliament. Such nationalism does not signal Nepal’s strength, especially when one half of the country is anti-India and the other half is looking towards India to further its demands. Given that we ‘need’ India, it will only increase the distance between the public and political leaders, which is not helpful for Nepal’s foreign policy. On the other hand, it has raised fears that the Madhes will not get the attention and respect it deserves. Because India raised the same issues as the Madhes-based parties, the Madhes Aandolan is perceived only a proxy of Indian interests.
Second, some have resorted to playing the usual China card. The CPN-UML sent some volunteers to clear a northern pass in Nepal-China border. Nepal’s ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhyay, said that if India continues the blockade, Nepal will be forced to seek Chinese help. This is problematic on multiple levels. First, it displays the ignorance of the ambassador about Nepal’s political/economic realities and the conduct of diplomacy. Second, it sends the message that Nepal will not seek to diversify its supply-chain if India lifts the blockade. If that is the case, Nepal will always have to depend on India and ‘hope’ that it will behave like a good neighbour.
Therefore, playing the China card to pressure India is pointless and can instead be counterproductive. China is neither capable nor even willing to replace India in Nepal. China has limited interests in Nepal, and to achieve that, China does not need to displace Indian influence. Second, Nepal does not have enough clout or diplomatic experience to balance the power-plays of its two giant neighbours. Our neighbours are too big for us to be on an equal footing with them under the current circumstances, either as friends or enemies.
Let them compete
Both stoking anti-India sentiments and playing the China card are not viable strategies for Nepal. The best Nepal can do is get its act together and invite some more Chinese influence, not as a substitute to Indian influence but as a competition to India so that the southern neighbour remains on its toes.
This does not mean that we accept the blockade as ‘fate’. Instead, we have to address the genuine demands of Madhes while putting political pressure on India. Then, we have to put forth a common front to inform India about Nepali interests. We need to show our manipulative side than the confrontational side. In the long run, there is no alternative but to diversify our economic and foreign relations. China can offer us that diversity. We have to understand that we cannot hand India the gun, and then trust it not to point the weapon at us. This blockade is our litmus test. We can either pretend that it will not happen again or make sure that it does not happen in future. Goodwill from neighbours should be expected, but it should never be taken for granted.
Sharma Poudel is a PhD student of international relations at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.