By SUBIR BHAUMIK (October 3, 2015) – New Delhi’s approach to its neighbours has increasingly been marked by muscularity, evident in its recent attempts to browbeat Nepal into carrying out amendments to its Constitution. What South Asia needs is a friendly India, not a powerful big brotherIndia has been involved in Nepal’s Constitution-making process since the beginning. So, it is unlikely that the passage of the Constitution would have come as a surprise Both in Nepal and Myanmar, the Modi administration seems to have displayed a lack of sensitivity towards the aspirations of smaller, sovereign nations. This could be because the security establishment has started to overshadow the Ministry of External Affairs or because domestic considerations have started to shape foreign policy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sharp initial focus on improving relations with countries in the neighbourhood evoked much optimism. Inviting the Prime Ministers of our neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, to his swearing-in ceremony was rightly billed as a great move. Mr. Modi’s visits to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka were seen as runaway successes because the Prime Minister effectively stressed the region’s shared destiny and promised that the countries would move forward together.
India’s huge relief effort after the Nepal earthquake earlier this year was also welcomed in the Himalayan country, despite some critical voices alleging that limits had been crossed. This was India playing a ‘big brother’ in a rather positive way — taking responsibility and assisting its neighbours without expecting reciprocity.
But it is in Nepal now that India has got itself into a huge tangle. New Delhi’s efforts at influencing the Nepali political elite to effect constitutional amendments — that will fulfil the aspirations of the Madhesis and the Tharus — have provoked a huge backlash in Nepal, with a ‘Back off India’ campaign gaining traction on social media. Some anti-India groups may be trying to take advantage, as Indian envoy in Kathmandu, Ranjit Rae, suggests, but the Indian handling of the issue has also provided them with necessary ammunition.
Threat of blockade
Nepali politicians and media allege a re-run of the economic blockade of the late 1980s, since the amendments desired by India have not been carried out. The petroleum products crisis in Bhutan and the way it effected a regime change there after the erstwhile Prime Minister Jigme Thinley was seen hobnobbing with China is surely not lost on its Himalayan neighbour.
After nearly a decade of uncertainty, Nepal has finally got a Constitution, sparking off some initial celebrations. It may not be the perfect Constitution, but it is federal, republican and, most importantly, secular. Nepal is no longer a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (which might upset some in India). Like Bangladesh, it has given itself a secular polity despite the huge majority enjoyed by one particular religious group. In fact, the ‘Hindu Rastra’ of yore is seen as a legacy of the monarchy that Nepal has given up, in keeping with the spirit of its long pro-democracy movement.
India has been involved in the Constitution-making process in Nepal — its top diplomats and leaders have been in regular touch with the Nepali leaders. So, should we believe that the Constitution, which 85 per cent of the 601-member Nepali Constituent Assembly (CA) voted for in September, came as a surprise to India despite the latter having a huge diplomatic and intelligence presence in that country?
When Mr. Modi dispatched Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar post-haste to Kathmandu to seek some necessary amendments, his visit was seen as ‘15 days too late’ by some Nepali leaders, and ‘15 days too early’ by a few others. Many leaders said India should have respected the ‘will of the Nepali people’, reflected in the verdict of the CA. The voting made clear the broad consensus in Nepal, with even some representatives of the recalcitrant Madhesi and Tharu communities voting for the Constitution. It was always possible to get some amendments done after the Constitution took effect and New Delhi should have been patient.
However, its muscular approach in pushing for seven amendments straight away, and leaking them to the Indian press, has diluted the goodwill that Mr. Modi’s two visits to Kathmandu had created. The visits had resulted in some beneficial deals, especially in the power sector.
India’s advice to Nepal to resolve differences “through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation” so as to “enable broad-based ownership and acceptance” is seen as a big shove, not a gentle push — and that is provoking deep resentment among citizens and the political class alike. This is interventionism at its worst. It would be really unfortunate if Indian interests are seen as being synonymous with those of some communities of Indian origin, whose leaderships remain deeply divided, even if not discredited. India needs to identify with the larger Nepali aspirations, after all the Modi talk of sacrifices by the Gorkhas to protect India. New Delhi’s reaction to the adoption of the Constitution — merely ‘noting it’ rather than greeting it — did not go down well with even the most pro-Indian of Nepali politicians.
It would be still more unfortunate if Indian reaction in the future is influenced by the dynamics of the Bihar elections. In a way, if India tries taking a hard-line approach to get what it wants in Nepal, it may end up driving Kathmandu further into China’s embrace. A former National Security Advisor (NSA) had confided to a senior Nepali diplomat recently that the blockade was the ‘most stupid thing’ India ever did in dealing with a neighbour.
Good diplomacy is all about effective, gentle persuasion minus threats or use of force. India should have lobbied discreetly on getting some of its concerns addressed in the Nepali Constitution, not thrown tantrums after the statute was adopted by a sweeping majority. This does not sit well with India’s image at a time when the Modi administration is making a determined bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
India’s failure to deliver on the Teesta water-sharing treaty has left trusted ally Bangladesh and its Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina uncertain. The land boundary agreement did help lift her spirits and Mr. Modi was seen as delivering on promises made, but unless the Teesta deal goes through, Ms. Hasina will never be able to convince her countrymen (and women) that India is a worthy friend. A fair share of water from a major river is much more important for Bangladesh — a nation dependent primarily on agriculture — than a few enclaves.
Here again, domestic considerations are a major problem. The Modi administration’s decision to regularise the stay of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan, a move that may get the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) some electoral dividend in West Bengal and Assam, has also unnerved the ruling party in Bangladesh. The Awami League is keen to prevent a large-scale migration of Hindus to India for a whole host of reasons.
Hype over hot pursuit
Mindless chest-thumping over hitting rebels “deep inside Myanmar” has already cost India. Despite the subsequent damage control that has led to important state visits, Myanmar has refused to hand over theNational Socialist Council of Nagalim–Khaplang (NSCN-K)’s leader, S.S. Khaplang, and three of his confidantes, who India wants to put on trial for attacks on its security forces. Myanmar peacemakers have actually held formal negotiations with Khaplang’s representatives on a national ceasefire agreement that the Thein Sein government is planning to sign with its ethnic rebel armies, ahead of the November parliament elections.
The two countries’ forces have, since the mid-60s, forayed into each other’s territories in ‘hot pursuit’ of rebels. So there was nothing new in the Indian cross-border raids. However, they were surely not “deep inside Myanmar” as the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, R.S. Rathore, claimed. The uncalled-for Indian braggadocio is what has upset Myanmar, and the Pakistanis shot back saying, “We are not Myanmar”.
Both in Nepal and Myanmar, the Modi administration seems to have displayed a lack of sensitivity towards the aspirations of people of these smaller sovereign nations. Whether this is because the security establishment has started to overshadow the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), or because domestic considerations have started to shape the Indian response, is a matter of speculation. However, a muscular neighbourhood policy, especially with smaller neighbours, will not work for India. It will not only help drive them into the Chinese fold, but will also provide traction to Pakistan’s sustained campaign against ‘Indian domination’ in the region.
Coming as it does after allegations that Indian agencies helped bring down the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, these actions will only raise the spectre of an Indian ‘Monroe Doctrine’ — under which India treats its neighbourhood as a sphere of influence — a doctrine India cannot afford to enforce; nor is it capable of enforcing such a principle. If the sentiments echoed by participants from neighbouring countries at a recent South Asian Economic Conclave in Delhi, which I attended, are any indication, South Asia wants a friendly and an understanding India to get its regionalism back on track — not a muscular cowboy, flaunting American attitudes and helicopters.
Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC correspondent and author. This article has been originally published in The Hindu on 3 Oct. 2015.