By Mani Shankar Aiyer (22 February 2018) – In November-December 2015, the Modi government not only disgraced itself but also seriously jeopardized our national interests in Nepal, our sister-country to the North on whom we depend to protect and promote our security and energy requirements. The dependence is reciprocal. A carefully thought-out and well-calibrated Nepal policy would stimulate a similar approach on Nepal’s part and, as sovereign, equal states in the 21st century, we could greatly expand the ambit of our cooperation and strengthen the bulwark of our common defences on the ramparts of the great Himalayas.
It is the Himalayan range which rings the northern reaches of our subcontinent and has done so for millennia, indeed, ever since Gondwana, drifting up from the Antarctic and the entire south-north length of the Indian Ocean, smashed into the Eurasian continent some 60 million years ago, throwing up the mighty Himalaya that has sheltered and nourished both our nations and the entire sub-continent. Relations with our northern neighbour must always, therefore, be among our highest priorities in foreign policy, to be handled with great sensitivity and always ensuring that the people of Nepal trust us and believe in our solidarity with them.
Historically, we have relied on the Nepali Congress to promote our interests in the mutual interest of both countries. At Independence, we both believed in democracy and emancipation from feudalism. Since the Ranas were holding both the royal family and the people of Nepal in thrall, actions we took in the early years to restore the rights of the royals and put the nation on the road to democracy were greatly welcomed. Alas, that phase lasted but a short time, and has now become Jurassic Park. But throughout the interim of half a century, we have tried to protect the Indian interest by playing off one Nepalese political force against the other, depending more on RAW than good sense to get our way. We have thus turned friends into foes and failed to convert foes into friends.
In the end, this colonial mindset – that we could somehow, by divide and rule, determine the destiny of Nepal so as to keep Nepal clinging to us and remain distanced from its northern and eastern neighbour, China – has succeeded only in winning us suspicion and distrust among the Nepalese people at large. As for the Nepalese politicians, they take our money and then go their own opportunistic way.
While all this has been vitiating India-Nepal relations for decades, it was what the Modi government did in November 2015, on the eve of the Nepal Constituent Assembly proclaiming the constitution, passed after more than a decade of bitter wrangles, that really broke the camel’s back. For immediately after the Constitution was adopted by a huge majority, Modi rushed his Foreign Secretary, in the mantle of PM’s Special Envoy, to pressure the government and the Constituent Assembly of Nepal to desist from proclaiming their own constitution! What would we have thought of Mountbatten or his “special envoy” landing in Delhi on 24 January, 1950 to tell us we must not proclaim, two days later on 26 January, 1950, our duly drafted, deliberated, debated and adopted Constitution? Well, that succinctly explains why the Nepal press described the Special Envoy’s bearing and performance as being akin to that of Lord Curzon!
The justification advanced by Modi’s spokespersons for this gross intervention and interference in the internal affairs of our northern neighbour was that their constitution had not taken adequate account of the needs of the plainspeople – the Madhesis. It was an extraordinary claim to make for more than one reason. First, the Madhesis (who live in the Terai abutting the Indian Gangetic Plain all along the southern border of Nepal) did not need Modi to take up cudgels on their behalf, for the Plainspeople were represented in the Nepal Constituent Assembly by nearly 130 elected MPs of whom all but about a dozen had solidly voted for the constitution, as adopted. Who was Modi to ride up like Don Quixote (Sushma Swaraj as Sancho Panza in tow) to fight the ‘Pahadi’ dragons?
Second, the Nepal government itself was saying that they had in mind amendments to the newly-adopted constitution relating to any outstanding Madhesi grievances that could even now be moved – for the Constituent Assembly would continue in existence even after the passage of the constitution (as it did in India for a full two years from 1950 to the 1952 elections to the first Lok Sabha).
Instead of waiting for the Nepalese to sort out Nepalese issues, and with his eye fixed firmly on the Bihar elections, then just three months away, Modi sought to leverage the “roti-beti rishta” that many Madhesi families have to families in Bihar to champion what he thought was the “Madhesi cause”. In order to garner whatever Bihari votes he could by collaborating with a few scattered Madhesi political aspirants, Modi sought to unveil his 56-inch chest by imposing a blockade on Nepal that caused huge human misery and massive deprivation even as all Nepalis were trying to recover from the shock of the earthquake that had but a few months earlier shaken Nepal to the core.
In the event, Modi suffered a humiliating defeat in Bihar notwithstanding his shenanigans in Nepal. Modi then tried to downplay his meddling in Nepal’s internal politics by sending an ambassador who has earned renown as perhaps the first Indian envoy to Kathmandu who has largely kept away from the three-tier elections held over several months in discrete successive phases to the local bodies, the provincial governments and, last of all, to the new parliament under the new constitution.
So stained has the Nepali Congress been by Modi’s actions that it has been resoundingly rejected by the people of the land, including the Madhesis, notwithstanding (or perhaps even because of) its traditional association with India. The victors have been the two Communist factions, the bigger winner being the one whose PM, KP Sharma Oli, was ousted by a nod and a wink from Modi’s government, principally, according to most informed Nepalis , through the agency of RAW. So pervasive has been the Nepalese rejection of Modi and his Nepali cohort that the Nepali Congress has been thrashed in the elections, the Madhesi politicians who sided with Modi have been eclipsed, the monarchist-Hindutva elements have been effectively eliminated, and the Communist factions have fared best even in Madhes, far better than the so-called Madhesi groupuscules much favoured by Modi, Yogi Adityanath and the Sangh Parivar.
Moreover, Comrade Oli is back as PM and heads the two factions that have merged under the name and style of the Communist Party of Nepal. The constitution guarantees the Oli government immunity for at least two years from any No-Confidence Motion. The general expectation is that for the first time since the monarchy was overthrown more than a decade ago, Nepal will have a government that lasts its full five-year term.
During these five years to come, Modi and the successor Indian government that will come by May 2019 at the latest, will have to witness Oli drawing Nepal closer to China than ever before. Thanks to Modi, our influence in Nepal is at its lowest ebb ever. Even the Nepali Congress will have to be circumspect about its relations with India. So there is precious little we can do to reinforce our traditional strategic preference for keeping China out of Nepal.
The sensible thing for us to do in these changed circumstances would be to remain completely out of Nepal politics and urge our ambassador in Kathmandu to continue improving his golf handicap. That might reassure the Nepalis and give them space and time to return in substantial measure to fostering our myriad links to Nepal that will ever remain far closer than the Chinese will ever be able to forge. We must learn to live in peaceful co-existence with the Chinese in Nepal in the confidence that the towering heights of the Himalaya will never allow Nepal to commit economic and cultural suicide by breaking with India, even as a triad of friendship between India, China and Nepal might, if handled intelligently, mark the beginnings of Hindi-Chini-Nepali bhai-bhai.
Over time, we might even be able to restore the Nehruvian vision of an Asian Resurgence that would take India, China and all of Asia back to the vanguard of the advancement of human civilization, a position that Asia, stretching from the Red Sea to the Pacific, had held for 5,000 years of global civilizational evolution until the Age of Imperialism dawned a mere 300 years ago.
Now the sun has set on all Empires. It is time India and China came together again. Let Nepal be the link.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)