Seeking to rebuild ties
The recent visit of Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to India assumes unusually great significance in the current scenario. The Doklam stand-off between India and China is into the third month, and Kathmandu claims to maintain “special relations” with both countries.
India’s strategic concern of being encircled by China through its neighbours is most evident in Nepal. When there was the economic blockade of Nepal on Indian borders, with ‘alleged’ support from New Delhi, Kathmandu turned to Beijing, which pumped in requisite goods and services. Kathmandu has tangibly turned to China as it was wary of South Block’s Nepal policy, especially since it abolished the monarchy and became a republic.
First, it feels India has not been supportive in the difficult transition to democracy. It was only taking up the cause of Madhesis, who were fighting for equal representation etc under the new Constitution. Second, New Delhi is micro-managing the politics in Kathmandu. Third, RSS leadership is more interested in Nepal being a Hindu Kingdom than a Secular Republic and would like the influence of Monarchy to be revived and retained which was apparently conditioned to Nepal’s Hindu profile. Fourth, Nepal would like to dip its hands into the deep pockets of China, as India’s Ambassador to Nepal Deep Kumar Upadhyay said in an IDSA seminar: “It is China who has the surplus money today and we are trying, like others, to get some of it in investment etc.”
Deuba’s five-day visit was also important as, admittedly, India-Nepal relations have become sour after the enactment of the Constitution on 20 September 2015; and the Madhesis, Nepalese with their origins from Bihar and Eastern UP, felt discriminated. They led protests in Parliament and on the streets and these were believed to have New Delhi’s tacit support. At one point, it was said that India had imposed the economic blockade, causing considerable strain to Nepal’s economy and society. Though the Indian government vehemently denied it saying the blockade was caused by internal conflicts in Nepal, it failed to convince the Nepalese.
Relations between the two plummeted for a brief period since. There was an anti-India feeling sweeping across the hills as the people in the Terai region claimed the support of Government of India. Although, in recent years there has been ebb in flow of the relationship, the two have had a very special relationship since the signing of the Friendship Treaty in 1950. Nepal is the only country which enjoys borderless access to India and Nepalese are treated at par with Indians and vice-versa.
However, with emergence of China as a big power in the neighbourhood, India’s relations with its neighbours are being influenced. Nepal is no exception. India’s neighbours play the China card whenever they are concerned about the “over lordship of India, or they seek to gain greater concessions from their big brother, India.”
India has been the biggest donor and trade partner of Nepal. Now, China claims to have overtaken it in its trade and investment. India-Nepal relations’ survey reveals: They have historical and civilisational links; are connected through kinship and culture, both religion and language; Nepal has 1800 km of open border with India touching five States — Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand; there are one million Indians living in Nepal and 4 million-odd Nepalese residing in India; the Indian Army has 32000 Gurkhas serving and 126,000 retired pensioners; after the One rank one pension scheme Rs.4000, crore pension is paid to retired Nepalese.
Additionally, India is its largest trading partner. The trade between the two increased from 29 per cent to 66 per cent. Exports from Nepal increased from NR 230 cr to 3713.5 cr in 2013-14. Likewise, Indian exports to Nepal increased from 1525 cr in 1995-96 to 29545.6 cr in 2013-2014. India’s direct investment in Nepal amounts 40% of its total FDI. In development assistance, New Delhi has extended Rs 300 cr aid to Kathmandu; gives 3000 scholarships for higher studies; has given three lines of big credit so far, US$ 100 million in 2006-7, $250 million in 2011-12 and $1billion in 2013-2014. In this visit, both have inked eight MOUs of $250 million. However, from Kathmandu’s point of view it is worried over the persistent trade deficit with India.
There is no gainsaying the fact that China is trying all means to woo Nepal. It is worried that Deuba chose to make India his first foreign visit. He is also known to be more India-inclined than both Khadga Prasad, Sharma Oli, of the Communist Party of Nepal, and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Chairman, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-centre). During the latter two PMs’ tenure, Nepal joined the adventurous one-belt-one-road (OBOR) project of China. And Nepal remains neutral on the Doklam stand-off.
Deuba has to do tight-rope walking between India and China. His detractors are watching if he could get New Delhi to start some of the big projects signed. One such being the hydro project, called Mahakali Treaty signed in 1996, in his earlier stint as PM, which sadly is yet to take-off.
New Delhi has also apparently shifted its position, which is staying away from Nepal’s internal contradictions, extending help only if it is called for, and dealing with Nepal as a country. It would remain neutral to the internal contestations on the nature of the Constitution, the nature and degree of representation to different sections of people. India has to be sensitive to the deep as well as widespread political divisions across the country.
At this particular time of Nepal’s painful and fractious democratic evolution, maintaining unity of perspective and opinions is difficult, exacerbating the differences is easy. India should do all it can to bring the political actors in Nepal together. At the same time, Nepal in its pursuit of national interest should not distance from its long term partner and mentor that India has been. It has done so by joining OBOR without India and remaining neutral on Doklam. Notably, the Nepalese Ambassador in Delhi kept mum when asked whether he expected India to be neutral when Kathmandu is in trouble or in conflict with another country!
Both India and Nepal have to realise and reaffirm that their relations are more than transactional, covering whole gamut of contacts between their people. China is wary of a resurgent India and is seeking to encircle it, by buying off its neighbours. New Delhi will have to show it to Beijing that the latter may have a military and economic edge over it at present, but its success in winning lies in its display of democracy, that is viable and enduring. Kathmandu too should see that difference, as it struggles for past 11 years, since the monarchy, to stabilize its nascent democracy. —INFA