Manoj Joshi: Mending fences with our neighbour

Joined at the hip as they are, India and Nepal cannot allow relations to continue in the free fall triggered by the Madhesi dispute last year

For a moment in 2014, it appeared that India had reset its relationship with Nepal. During his visit, the first by an Indian PM in 17 years, Narendra Modi put himself across as an Indian leader who had no desire to interfere in the country’s complicated political affairs. He said as much in his speech to the Constituent Assembly. This was music to the ears of the Nepalese, who are ever sensitive to signs of overweening conduct of the Indians.

PM Modi and Nepalese PM KP Oli meet in New Delhi in February. Though various agreements were arrived at, both sides remained suspicious of each other. Pic/AFP
PM Modi and Nepalese PM KP Oli meet in New Delhi in February. Though various agreements were arrived at, both sides remained suspicious of each other. Pic/AFP

Two years later, the relationship seems to be in a meltdown phase. Nepal recently called off a visit of its President Bidya Devi Bhandari and sacked its ambassador to New Delhi. Modi has cancelled his planned visit to attend the Buddha Purnia celebrations at Lumbini on May 21. These actions are in response to a revolt against Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who heads a coalition comprising his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninst) and that of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) headed by Pushp Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda.’

The hallmark of a regional power is the ability to shape the policies of countries in your neighbourhood in your own favour. By this measure, we are not doing too well. We have already had difficult relations with China, Pakistan and the Maldives, and now we have Nepal. Sri Lanka remains on the brink and, as for Bangladesh, our ties there depend on who runs the government.

Because it takes two hands to clap, New Delhi cannot be blamed for all the problems. The issue is not culpability, but the consequences that India must face. In each country of our neighbourhood, barring Bhutan, we are challenged by the rising power of China, which has the drive and the money, and is determined to shape the policies of the countries in its neighbourhood to our detriment.

Geography has locked Nepal into India and, given the asymmetry of size, the former is always apprehensive of the latter’s power. Given this situation, it is New Delhi’s responsibility to manage the relationship with its prickly neighbour. Anti-Indianism is a staple of Nepali politics, but effective handling can make it go away, just as it did in the period 2006-2014.

The current problem has its origins in the political chicanery by Nepal’s mainstream political parties who got together to introduce a Constitution in 2015 that was weighted against the Madhesi people of the Terai region, many of whom have ties of consanguinity with India. The Madhesis thereafter launched an agitation, supported by India, to blockade Nepal.

Uncharacteristically, India woke up to this constitutional sleight of hand too late and rushed foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Kathmandu to urge the Nepalese parties to rethink but it was just too late.
CPN (UML) leader KP Sharma Oli, who became the prime minister of the country, took a hardline against the agitation and accused India of fomenting it. Only after efforts to rope in China to aid Nepal failed, did Oli and his associates agree to make a deal with the Madhesis on the issue of provincial boundaries and proportional participation of the plains people in the life of the country.

Oli’s six-day visit to New Delhi in the end of February to remove the “misunderstandings” did not go too well. Though various agreements were arrived at, especially for reconstruction assistance relating to the 2015 earthquake, both sides remained suspicious of each other. Their assessment was based on the plank of ultra-nationalism that Oli was adopting, depicting the Madhesis as agents of India.

Circumstantially, a case can be made out to see New Delhi’s hand in the effort to replace the troublesome Oli with a friendlier face, even if it was that of Prachanda (fierce), the Maoist leader. After a week-long visit to New Delhi in mid-April, the leader of the pro-India Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba went back and offered to support a coalition led by Prachanda, if he agreed to walk out of the coalition with Oli.

Initially, Prachanda ageed and threatened to withdraw support from Oli, but later he backed off when he realised he didn’t have support within his own party. In exchange, Oli agreed to give amnesty for Maoists for crimes committed during the insurgency.

India-Nepal relations now seem to be in a freefall. Being joined at the hip, they cannot afford this situation. As the bigger party, New Delhi needs to act to retrieve the situation without necessarily pandering to Oli. In supporting the rights of Madhesis, New Delhi occupies the moral high ground, as well as serves its own interests of cementing its support among people who look to New Delhi for succor. But what is needed is effective political leadership in management of what has always been a difficult relationship.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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