Modest proposalWhat does Nepal expect from New Delhi during the prime minister’s upcoming visit?
There’s a joke in Nepal’s foreign policy establishment about how New Delhi perceives every foreign minister of Nepal: He starts off as a pro-Indian and ends up being pro-Chinese.
Though a light-hearted remark, it says a lot about how Nepalis look at New Delhi’s reading of our foreign policy conduct: India fails to internalise that a country’s foreign policy is but an extension of its domestic constituencies and dynamics.
When Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ starts his visit to New Delhi on Thursday, he will be mindful of his troubled relationship with India in 2008-09 when he was last prime minister of the new republic.
Though multiple factors affected and led to a steady deterioration of the Maoists’ ties with New Delhi, there is still a strong perception in Kathmandu that India was hugely antagonised by Prachanda’s move to choose to visit Beijing to attend the Olympics before visiting New Delhi.
From foe to friend
When I met him just days before he was sworn in as prime minister for a second time, Prachanda still was not sure how his relationship with India was going to evolve. Multiple sources corroborate his deep foreboding now that he is ensconced in Baluwatar at least for the next seven months, though the Indian establishment openly acknowledges its pleasant surprise that Prachanda should be ‘our best friend now in Nepal’. Both perhaps also realise that things can quickly change.
Delhi hopes that the Maoists will be able to regain their ethnic constituencies and once again become a link between the hills and the Madhes. That is where the party will be fundamentally different from the CPN-UML, which is widely seen as being far less sympathetic to the Madhes cause. But Oli and the UML have in turn consolidated their hold on a nationalist base.
Delhi, on the one hand, rightly understands that the current constitutional standoff needs to be settled for the statute to go into implementation; on the other, it also understands that such a thing will be very difficult by way of numbers unless the CPN-UML comes on board. It’s also a fact that the current Madhesi political leadership is a deeply divided and discredited lot. And the Madhesi population realises that without significant support of their agenda among the hill-centric parties, there is little chance for national reconciliation.
The CPN (Maoist Centre) and the Nepali Congress currently look poised to push for a constitutional amendment to address Madhesi concerns. But there are constituencies, both within the Nepali Congress and Prachanda’s Maoist party, that in various degrees will resist the amendment and resent the Indian role in the whole constitutional project. At its worst, Delhi’s undeclared blockade to protect the interest of the Madhesi constituency after the new constitution came out in September only hardened the perception among Nepalis that: A, Delhi’s primary constituency in Nepal is Madhes; B, Delhi will go far in achieving its foreign policy goals, even if that means alienating a vast section of the Nepali population.
Finding a fine balance, in fact, is at the root of India’s current dilemma in Nepal: How does it project its soft-power status to gain political leverage to settle the political standoff and yet not alienate a vast number of Nepalis?
Failure to do so will have a cascading effect: When Delhi opts for muscular foreign policy enforcement, it will again give rise to a cross-party constituency resisting the Indian role in facilitating the peace/political process, which in turn will have its reflection in the way our foreign policy is conducted. It was and will continue to be hard, for example, to counter any narrative that calls for diversification of trade and transit and a stronger relationship with China, when Nepalis have witnessed a long and hard blockade, even if undeclared, bringing our economy and livelihood to a near-standstill.
Delhi has to weigh in the risks carefully. Nepal’s left and right constituencies, more than the Nepali Congress, have had an historical distrust towards India, and, until recently, Maoist literature regarded India as the party’s prime enemy. Very similar is the origin of the Nepali right: king Mahendra and 30 years of Panchayat played (to many, it brilliantly did so) the ‘China card’ to ward off Indian aggression. Do not forget, this was also the time when India annexed Sikkim.
So as it stands, the NC straddles that middle space that offers some room for political maneuverability. That, however, doesn’t mean that there are no suspicions of India in the NC at all. Even going by the standards of Nepal’s extreme political fluidity, the NC, perhaps, is ideologically the most fragmented big party: its members range from Hindu rightists to true blue BP-era socialists and post-1990 neoliberals who believe that identity politics is passé, and once Nepal attains prosperity, all ideological divisions will quickly vanish.
What can New Delhi do?
It may sound ambitious, but ambition is what is required to change the course of staid and stagnating bilateral ties between Nepal and India. There’s a persistent belief in Nepal that India (or Indian companies) signs big bilateral agreements (Pancheshwor, Upper Karnali, Postal Road and so on) but is not keen to develop them. It wants to sit on top of these projects so that others don’t step in.
This has greatly fuelled the age-old perception in Nepal that, like with the Koshi and Gandak water projects, India either wants to extract disproportionate benefits from these bilateral projects or is just not interested in developing them. In its most paranoid form, the view is that India has a deep sinister design in seeing Nepal remain poor, divided and vulnerable.
This can change. Serious work can begin on Pancheshwor and the Postal Road with immediate effect. And India could also substantially help with the fund shortfall in post-earthquake reconstruction (though Prime Minister Prachanda has to be careful about resorting to populist measures whenever he talks about reconstruction).
These measures will at least mark a new and good beginning. That’s not to argue that all this will be easy, given our political instability, bureaucratic inefficiency and overall lethargy. But we have to start somewhere. The last big Indian project I can recall is a good part of the East-West Highway, and that was in the 1970s and 1980s.
With so much of shared history and culture, not to talk of geography, we could both do much more, instead of constantly blaming each other and getting locked in a zero-sum game.
And India should come out with a big heart like it did when Prime Minister Gujral, during a 1997 visit to Kathmandu, grandly declared that India does not expect quid pro quo from its smaller neighbours. But he was a political weakling, and he didn’t have a majority in Parliament to enforce durable policy and major political shifts. Prime Minister Modi has the mandate.
Little wonder then that a similar breeze of optimism swept Kathmandu when Modi visited Nepal in 2014 and won the hearts and minds of millions of Nepalis.
The joke then was that Modi would sweep any constituency, including Kathmandu, were he to contest the elections in Nepal.
The result of the current stasis is more than a little disturbing. Prolonged instability could invite big-power struggles and Nepal will turn into a theatre of geopolitical games, which will be beyond our national capacity to manage.
The warning is writ large on the wall. The question is whether we can read it now.