Communication gapIt is unfortunate that ties between the best of friends Nepal and India have soured
There is no alternative to salvaging Nepal-India relations which are, perhaps, at the lowest ebb in the past seven decades of modern sub-continental history. Neither of these two countries can afford to dismantle their multilayered and multifaceted ties merely at the whim of a set of mandarins who presently happen to be at the helm of affairs on either side of the border. There is no point in pointing the finger at any party for what happened during the last five-month-long imbroglio. Given the first amendment to Nepal’s four-month old constitution last week and the urgency on both sides to normalise relations, there cannot be a better time than now to begin the endeavour. And it can only begin with an honest realisation, if not an outright confession, on both sides that the mutual benefits of maintaining the best of relations far outweigh the outcomes of ‘ego games’.
Apparently, the ultra-nationalist demagoguery of the KP Oli government in its initial days was preposterous. Slogans of self-sustainability, finding alternatives to Indian supply channels (putatively leaning towards China) and not bowing down to any pressure were hollow and counter-productive. This is simply because replacing or comparing Nepal-India relations with those of other countries in the world is unthinkable. The past five months must have been equally difficult for India. While on the ground, there was a ‘regulated’ embargo on goods entering Nepal, it had to take refuge in diplomatic verbosity and maintain that “there is no blockade from the Indian side”. In fact, the double standard in this information age did not suit the stature and dignity of a regional superpower and the world’s largest democracy like India.
Relations have suffered because political leaders on either side sometimes hold their cards too close to their chests instead of placing them all on the table. Issues which seemed to be an obvious and immediate agenda for bilateral talks, even in a common man’s eyes, have been pushed under the carpet. Even during the present hiccup, India constantly maintained that it did not have any other interest except seeing Nepal becoming “peaceful and prosperous”. But it was too vague a statement. Clearly, India wanted to support the Madhesi cause.
India’s security interests have always remained at the top of the agenda in its relations with Nepal. There is every ground for India to have these genuine interests. It has been the victim of a number of terrorist attacks in recent years. Nepal is alleged to have been one of the major smuggling routes for fake Indian currency notes. An aircraft belonging to their national flag carrier was hijacked en route from Kathmandu to Delhi 16 years ago. And the open border is often used by miscreants to hide in Nepal. To discuss these issues with a “friend”, no sugar coating was required, both in tone and intent. And Nepal should recognise these concerns and honestly work to address them with due urgency within the realms of the “best” friendship.
Instead, India has nonchalantly experimented with its own solutions, ostensibly to solve the problems once and for all, often without taking Nepal’s political leadership into confidence. This approach has seldom worked. For example, the Indian ruling elite perhaps thought that creating only one or two provinces in Nepal’s Tarai plains would provide a better security cushion for India. But this objective would have been better achieved through consultation and dialogue instead of putting pressure on the Nepal government by blocking the supply points on the international border in the guise of the Madhesi agitation.
Undoubtedly, India has been the largest donor to Nepal for decades. It has supported Nepal in many critical situations like the April earthquake last year. It does not need to resort to instruments like mounting an economic blockade to prove that it is far more powerful than Nepal in every respect. This is an established and accepted reality. But it is also not true that all the benefits have been flowing in Nepal’s direction. There exists a great deal of mutual dependence in multiple fields. Indian expatriates in Nepal are the seventh largest remitter to India who send back almost $3 billion each year. The figure is approximately equal to the remittance India receives from Canada. Nepal is the 10 largest export destination for Indian products. In 2015, the value of Indian exports to Nepal amounted to $6 billion. The balance of trade with Nepal is entirely in India’s favour with exports being 10 times higher than imports. Service imports are also estimated to amount to at least $3 billion annually. There is a large number of fee-paying Nepali students in Indian institutions and thousands of Nepalis visit India for health care, tourism and pilgrimage annually.
However, these issues of mutual dependence, or oftentimes, India’s reaping even larger financial and other benefits from Nepal, have never surfaced, perhaps consciously. Nepal is often left to feel that her contributions as a friend are not
duly recognised. Recently, and rightly, India has voiced concern over increasing anti-Indian feelings in Nepal. There are clearly three possible solutions to this trend. One, the two countries should talk like friends with a shared future and
shared goals. Two, they must talk using figures, whether it is about the marginalisation of the Tarai or economic or trade exchanges. Three, jingoism and chicanery must stop on both sides.
Finally, India has invariably presented to the world that Nepal has never remained out of its sphere of influence. The current episode is also part of this game. If this is the case, Indian foreign policy operatives should also accept the fact that their policy faux pas have been equally responsible for the geometric rise of communist and pro-authoritarian forces in Nepal for whom anti-Indianism has been the main springboard for their “nationalist” politics.
Wagle is a former editor of Arthik Abhiyan, an economic weekly