India and its Himalayan strategy

By Parul Chandra ( 30 August 2017) –  With China prowling around in its backyard, India rolled out the red carpet for Nepalese prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba during his recent five-day state visit to the country. India hopes to not just counter growing Chinese influence in Nepal but also to further mend bilateral ties that turned decidedly frosty after New Delhi imposed an unofficial economic blockade on the landlocked country in 2015.

Though India denied imposing a blockade, New Delhi’s active backing of the demand for adequate political representation by the Madhesis living in Nepal’s Terai (plains) region did not go down well with Kathmandu. The consequent hardship to the people only served to stoke anti-India sentiment. Faced with fuel shortage, the Nepalese government then headed by KP Oli, was quick to turn to China for help. Beijing gleefully stepped in. Since then, New Delhi has been acutely worried about the expanding Chinese footprint in the Himalayan country.

Some reassurance

Nepalese foreign minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s declaration that “Nepal would not get dragged into this or that side in the border dispute” in the backdrop of the Doklam stand-off, as also Deuba’s assurance during his recent visit that no anti-India activity would be allowed on its soil, should reassure New Delhi.

But even though Deuba and his Nepali Congress Party are perceived to be pro-India unlike the Oli dispensation, it’s clear that New Delhi isn’t willing to take chances. Consequently, India went all out to woo Deuba with promises of swift and effective implementation of connectivity, infrastructure and development projects as well as continuing help with post-earthquake reconstruction assistance, apart from arranging his visits to Tirupati and Bodh Gaya.

Of the eight agreements inked during the Deuba visit, four were to render further assistance for quake reconstruction work. This aid diplomacy will see India help Nepal build 50,000 houses, execute 157 projects in the health sector and help reconstruct 70 schools and 28 major cultural centres. This way, India is hoping to reduce the ‘trust deficit’ which widened after the 2015 blockade.

Not an easy task

This will be no easy task for New Delhi as it tries to gently ‘nudge’ Kathmandu into accommodating the aspirations of the Madhesis, who comprise one-third of Nepal’s population. The Pahadis and the indigenous Janjatis, in turn, comprise the other one-third each of Nepals’s demographic profile.

India, while being acutely aware of Nepal’s complex and diverse society and the aspirations of its people, has been batting for the Madhesis for long. But their demand is at odds with the historical concept of hill nationalism which speaks of ‘One language, one dress, one king and one country’, a slogan coined by King Mahendra and which is now seen as being ‘exclusivist’ in nature.

India is also worried that any disturbance in the Terai could affect peace and stability in Bihar and UP given that the two states share long borders with Nepal and deep cultural and familial ties with the Madhesis. Already, there is a nascent secessionist movement that’s taken root in the Terai which believes that the creation of a separate country will help address Madhesis aspirations for greater political power and economic progress. This could queer the pitch for India. However, each time India pushes for the concerns of Madhesis to be addressed, it finds Kathmandu pulling out the China card. Therefore, the carefully worded joint statement issued during Deuba’s visit took note of the India’s appreciation for the Nepalese government’s efforts “to take all sections of society on board in the Constitution implementation process and in establishing Nepal as a federal, democratic republic”.

New Delhi’s assiduous efforts to reassure Kathmandu that it only has the interests of Nepal in mind also found reflection in Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s remarks after the Deuba-Modi meeting, when he reiterated Modi’s policy of ‘Neighbouhood First’ and ‘Sabke Saath, Sabka Vikas’.

While all this sounds good, what Kathamandu will be really looking for is the translation of words into action given New Delhi’s abysmal track record in project implementation in Nepal. This has also contributed to the trust deficit with the perception in Kathmandu being that while India promises to build projects, their execution is extremely tardy. For instance, the Pancheshwar multipurpose project has been hanging fire for two decades with the two sides failing to finalise a Detailed Project Report. New Delhi must ensure it pushes for it now that the two prime ministers have directed officials to finalise the DPR within the next one month. India stands to benefit hugely from this project with the power generated from it to be shared equally between the two countries besides accruing irrigation and flood-control benefits.

Seeking to have greater economic integration with Nepal, India will also need to deliver on its assurance of swift completion of two on-going cross-border rail connectivity projects: the Jayanagar-Bijalpur-Bardibas and the Jogbani-Biratnagar rail-links.

Priority is to cooperate

This apart, New Delhi will have to examine in what manner it can cooperate with Nepal on “priority projects”, among them the Kushinagar-Lumbini-Kapilavastu and Bardibas-Birgunj rail links, upgradation of the Birgunj-Pathlaiya-Narayanghat and Butwal-Pokhara roads into expressways, an international airport at Nijgadh and motorable bridges on the Mahakali. Other rail links and road connectivity projects too need to be executed swiftly if India wants to convey the seriousness of its intentions to partner Nepal in its economic growth. Else China will eagerly step in with aid and infrastructure. Kathmandu has often gone out of the way to award projects to China on a government-to-government basis while Indian companies bag projects through international tendering. Major projects bagged by China include the Pokhara airport and the West Seti and Budhigandaki hydropower projects. Discussions are also on between Nepal and China to construct a cross-border rail link with Nepal.

All this should make India realise not just the competition it faces from the Chinese dragon inNepal but also that it can no longer rely merely on its historical, cultural and people-to-people ties to earn goodwill . Therefore, India must step on the gas and begin delivering quickly on projects fast also walking the tight-rope on the Madhesi issue.

The writer is a senior journalist. This article first appeared in thehindubusinessline.com.

 

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