By Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)
The US President Donald Trump’s apparently preposterous perspective that Nepal and Bhutan are parts of India is laughable, politically outrageous and a clear diplomatic faux pas. It will disappoint the Indians, Nepalese and Bhutanese, as India will soon be misconstrued as being a big brother and the two countries would feel belittled and besmirched as independent and sovereign nations.
Since the statement is serious to upset many politicians and observers, and diplomatically a dangerous trend, but it has come from the head of the “most powerful country” in the world, it is worth engaging with it. I wish to do so in order to decipher it in all its nuances and the thinking behind it, however, flippant it may be.
Understandably, there are two interpretations of Trump’s statements, ‘goof-ups’ as his critics call it, as well as of his personality. One, that his supporters advance, i.e. he is not a run-of-the-mill politician and he has original and authentic ideas, unconventional they may be. He is consistent with his views, unpalatable and radical they may be, to the conservative media used to so-called diplomatic niceties and political correctness. I, somehow, have some sympathy for this viewpoint, as I was shown by a Trump supporter a video of his interview by the famous talk-show host Oprah Winfrey way back in 1988. And I was startled to see and hear Trump’s views on American politics, some of which he has held till today. So obviously, there is consistency.
Interestingly, Trump is addressing a particular segment of American electorate, which voted him to victory. Just before the elections, I was talking to an American friend who vehemently and embarrassingly argued that Trump could never win as he was an arriviste in American politics. But lo and behold, to the shocked surprise of many political pundits, he won! I had said to my friend, he might win, as he was coming up with fresh and audacious ideas for Americans, one may disagree with. But that is another matter.
The second interpretation is critical, certainly not charitable. That is, Trump is mentally unsound, he was almost forced by his critics to undergo a brain test. He displays ‘stubborn disregard’ and ‘wilful ignorance’ when his own assessment and beliefs are contradicted. He is impetuous, unpredictable and uncanny in his utterances and behaviour. To be fair and impartial, a great many politicians across the world are known for their gaffes, slips-of-tongue, and dumb quotes.
American journalist and satirist Daniel Kurzman has compiled funny quotes of Americans in two of his books. Remember, when Trump made that snide remark, mocking Modi, on the library building India built in Afghanistan, his supporters said he was perhaps confusing the library with the parliament building etc.
Having gone through Trump’s supporters’ and critics’ characterisation of him and interpretations of his ‘clangers’, let us examine the thinking behind this statement. Let me hasten to add that, we are, not for a second, endorsing what he said. But could it have sprung from the belief that Nepal and Bhutan are the closest neighbours India has?
These are the only two countries where Indians do not need visa to enter. Nepal and India are one and the same in social and cultural spheres; even politically both reflect each other. There are millions of Nepalese working in India, owning property and business and vice-e-versa. Many Nepalese say they have roti (bread) and beti (daughter) relations with India, which means livelihood connection and giving away daughters in marriage, a civilisational connection. From the people’s names, both Indians and Nepalese, one could not distinguish one from the other, even in ethnic features, as both ethnicities in Nepal have similarities and sameness in India, in North and North-east of India.
Although, not having socio-cultural similarities, Bhutan is close to India in its politics and external relations. Indians have easy visa-free access to Bhutan and Indian money is usable there. Much of Bhutan’s development work is done by India. Narendra Modi made Thimpu his first foreign destination since he took over as Prime Minister, which more than shows our closeness to the country and importance we attach to it. In this column, we have shown the depth and breadth of India-Bhutan and India-Nepal relations. Of course, we did not need Trump to show us that with a controversial and unacceptable statement. But, it shows how the world leader thinks that India-Nepal and India-Bhutan relations are too close to see them separately.
The closeness between India-Nepal and India-Bhutan is what may have prompted Trump to make this puerile pronouncement. I would like to believe so without apportioning any motive. And our concern should be– shall we not maintain this proximity between these two countries? Worryingly, both countries are drifting a bit, mainly at the behest of China, which is calculatedly poaching on our neighbours.
Of late, China has been wooing Bhutan with its ‘soft’ power, by encouraging tourists to visit the Himalayan Kingdom, by offering scholarships to students to study in China. Even the Chinese diplomats from Delhi are making frequent dash to Thimphu to meet politicians before their next general elections. China’s Foreign Vice-Minister Kong Xuanyou made a rare trip to Bhutan in July 2018. Bejiing has deep pockets, and Chinese tourists bring in substantial money. The young Bhutanese generation is open to new opportunities and luxuries. The unemployment rate at about 10 per cent also worries Bhutanese youth students. China’s offer thus appears tempting for them.
Likewise, Nepal has been ladled out funds by Beijing for its various projects. Another close neighbour, with its own economic problems and development challenges, has been eyeing the surplus money in China. The former Nepalese ambassador to India, while swearing by India-Nepal friendship, confessed in a seminar in Delhi that Nepal is reaching up to China to tap into its surplus money.
No doubt, China’s interference in both countries is a matter of grave concern for New Delhi. Nepal and Bhutan are two buffer States wedged between India and China. In fact, the geo-strategic importance of Nepal grew dramatically since 1950, when Beijing’s annexation of Tibet brought China right up to India’s poorly-demarcated Himalayan border, causing a dispute that led to a war in 1962, and continues to vex the bilateral relation even today.
Nepal’s unstable democratic politics makes things a bit more difficult to negotiate. Ironically, the relations were smoother when Nepal was under the king. But, that is history, and India, as a champion of democracy must learn to deal better with Nepal’s growing democracy and its custodians.
Likewise, Bhutan with 800,000 people should be easier for New Delhi to handle. It is quite important to India with its huge hydro-power potential that provides India with cheaper electricity. Bhutan has no diplomatic link with China. New Delhi will have to make a serious mistake to push Bhutan into ‘Chinese sphere of influence’. But Kathmandu’s inching towards Beijing is obvious. It has already signed the Belt and Road Initiative of China, and has many other agreements.
New Delhi will have to play a defter diplomacy to dissuade Nepal and Bhutan to drift into Chinese side. Many of India’s neighbours may do the same; play China off against India to their interest. But is New Delhi not doing the same with the US and China? This policy of either non-alignment or having best of both worlds may not work, at least with a leader like Trump, who makes no room for double-crossing. He has pulled up Pakistan for doing so. New Delhi should play its cards as per principles and its political values along with its national interest. Others in the region then will surely follow suit.—INFA