In ‘Neighbourhood First’, India needs to RESET Nepal ties
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s foreign policy will be a major determinant in next month’s parliamentary elections in India. Soon after coming to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed the “neighborhood first” policy – aimed at improving and strengthening India’s relations with its neighbouring countries. Nearly five years down the line, however, a big question remains about how successful this policy has been in fulfilling its desired objectives.
India’s relations with Pakistan are at the lowest ebb in recent history after the terrorist attacks in Pulwama, Kashmir. Ties with Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka have oscillated between highs and lows. While India is viewed favorably in Afghanistan, the rise of a new party in Bhutan has increased concerns in India about its putative China tilt.
India’s relations with Nepal were expected to soar to new heights during the Modi era. Modi mania swept the Nepalese off their feet after his maiden visit. That, however, was short-lived because India callously imposed an economic blockade in 2015 when Nepal was limping back to normalcy after the mega earthquake. The relationship obviously took a nosedive and hit rock bottom after the blockade.
Nepal and India share a close geographical, historical, economic, cultural, religious and people-to-people relationship. Chiran Jung Thapa, a prominent Nepali security expert, opines, “The relationship we have with India is unique, unparalleled and umbilical. It is high, wide and deep and there is no substitute to it. I call it bread, bride and braves relationship because it is much more than just roti (bread/employment) and beti (daughter/marital) relationship.”
Modi’s maiden visit to Nepal in August 2014 was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister after a 17-year hiatus. Until then, there was a widespread perception that bureaucratization and securitization (particularly the intelligence wings) had irreparably damaged the bilateral relationship during the decade long United Progressive Alliance rule. The euphoric reception Modi received clearly demonstrated positive public opinion and indicated warming of bilateral relations ahead. During his speech to Nepal’s parliament, Modi said India had never won a battle in which Nepali blood had not been spilt and in which a Nepali had not been martyred. This acknowledgement of Nepal’s contribution to India’s security catapulted him to almost messianic stature in Nepal. The praise he heaped and the commitments he made to support Nepal’s development made it seem as if the bilateral relationship would be elevated to new heights during his tenure.
Unfortunately, those expectations and the bonhomie crumbled within a year. An economic blockade imposed by India on Nepal over reservations against certain provisions in Nepal’s newly promulgated constitution plunged the relationship to its lowest level. The adoption of coercive diplomacy backfired and irreversibly bludgeoned India’s image in Nepal. The injudicious choice India opted for was clearly antithetical to the ideals of a country that prided itself as the world’s largest democracy and aspired to be a major global power. It underscored the policy contradictions because India had most supported Nepal after the devastating April 2015 earthquake.
Thapa said “that policy choice demonstrated an inherent flaw in India’s strategic outlook towards Nepal…The blockade was an unambiguous manifestation of failure of India’s diplomatic maneuverings and policy vis-a-vis Nepal.”
India’s conflict with Pakistan will be an important factor in the coming Indian elections. Naturally, voters will vote for the party they believe can better secure the nation from conventional and asymmetric threats from across it borders. However, it is the relationship with Nepal that should trump the contentious one with Pakistan. Thapa states “Nepal contributes a significant amount of men and money to India’s security architecture” and is a net security provider.
More than 50,000 Nepali men serve in the Indian armed forces. According to official records, remittances from Nepal amount to 4 billion dollars annually, making it the seventh largest contributing country. However, this number is skewed. Due to open borders between India and Nepal, most Indians carry their earnings back, thereby significantly deflating the actual sums, which cannot be accurately gauged officially.
Thapa further opines that Nepal should actually matter most to India. “More than the mortal adversary that stands in front of you, it is the relationship with those that are standing beside India, ready to kill and die on its behalf that should have prominence in its strategic calculus. It is high time that voters and leaders across India do some introspection and dispassionately appraise Nepal’s contribution to its security.”
The Indian establishment should also realize that a stable and prosperous Nepal will work in its best interests. Any instability in Nepal will have a spill-over effect across the open and porous border.
To elevate and strengthen the bilateral relationship, a RESET (Review, Empathize, Sensitize, Engage and Transform) is required in Nepal-India relations. It needs a review to maintain the relationship taking into account the changed times, context, perspectives and aspirations. If India seeks to win the hearts of Nepalese, it should forego its policy of strict reciprocity. The essence of the (former PM Inder K) Gujral Doctrine should be reflected in Indian dealings with Nepal.
Similarly, the report of the Eminent Persons Group, formed to suggest ways to redefine bilateral ties, should be given due consideration and not placed in cold storage. India must adopt a new approach for swift, effective delivery of its projects in Nepal; in the hydropower, irrigation, connectivity and infrastructure sectors. Only with timely delivery of commitments can India acquire the credibility it aspires to attain, of a responsible global power.
Unless there is empathy in the bilateral relationship, it cannot build trust and will leave room for misunderstandings. The dominant school of thought in India, that perceives Nepal as acting against Indian interests by tilting towards China, is narrow-minded at best. Nepal conducts its foreign policy that aims to protect and promote its own national interests, just like other sovereign states. Doing anything detrimental to either neighbour would hurt its vital national interest and Nepal cannot afford that. Hence, it seeks to maintain that fine balance to assure its neighbours of its intentions, ambitions and commitments.
Both Nepal and India should sensitize certain issues that are of priority to them and ensure these are taken care of. Nepal does not have a colonial past and Nepalis are fiercely proud of their sovereign and independent existence through history, which India needs to be realize while dealing with Nepal. Encroachment of its borders and interference in domestic politics does not sit well with the Nepali people. About India’s security concerns, Nepal will not allow anti-India activities from its soil.
Once the core concerns are identified, both countries should increase levels of engagement at all levels. Exchange of high level visits and building personal rapport among leaders is important and will provide momentum to the ties. The best part of the Nepal-India relationship is close people-to-people ties. Therefore, it is public diplomacy that can best serve to maintain vitality of ties. These measures can ultimately ensure a dynamic transformation in the bilateral relationship. The nature of the relationship and mentality of the leadership and policymakers cannot be stuck in the 1950s. In spite of vast dissimilarities in size, population and economy between Indian and Nepal, their symbiotic ties can be a perfect example from which the world can learn.
Modi’s neighborhood policy should ideally have placed Nepal on top due to the unparalleled affinities. Despite a good start, the momentum was quickly lost due to a reckless foreign policy choice. Today, because of that reckless policy, the natural affinity remains egregiously distorted and Nepal’s China tilt is palpable. India can ill-afford to not seriously RESET its Nepal policy. Shouldn’t Indian voters and leaders contemplate the value they accord to friendship with those that have spilt blood to defend India’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity?