Next door Nepal: Distant neighbours

By Yubaraj Ghimire (24 April, 2017) – The official response of Nepal to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s Delhi visit was the same as always: “It has been a grand success,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat, who was a member of the entourage. But despite such positive inferences, India-Nepal relations have suffered many ups and downs in recent years, especially in the past one decade, resulting in India losing clout and credibility in Nepal. That naturally calls for serious introspection into what has gone wrong in the relations along with corrective measures to address them, especially during high-level bilateral visits.

In other words, the two sides routinely talk about civilisational commonalities, culture, religion and people-to-people relations binding them “together”, but rarely go deeper into the current state of bilateral relations marred by a trust deficit. Bhandari’s visit to Delhi, her first since becoming president in October last, failed to impress on either side that a serious effort was needed to repair the frayed relations. It seems the Modi government has not fully realised the impact of the policy that President Pranab Mukherjee as External Affairs Minister in the UPA government pursued in Nepal.

It facilitated the Maoists and their radical agenda taking the centrestage in Nepali politics while gradually sidelining the moderate and traditional political forces. This policy is today seen as the main reason for the fragmentation of Nepali politics. The failure on the part of Nepali actors to prepare a constitution involving all the political sections has only prolonged the transition process. Both Mukherjee and Prime Minister Modi have reiterated that India’s stance is for the “peace, stability and prosperity of Nepal”, suggesting that “having all sides on board is a pre-requisite to achieve that objective”. But that has proved to be something easier said than done. However, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs V.K. Singh was less diplomatic when he told President Bhandari that India was different from its other friends, and that there were no strings attached to whatever help India extended to Nepal.

President Bhandari’s departure to Delhi coincided with the ten-day long Nepal-China joint military exercise, the first in history, in Kathmandu. China has promised continuity and support to the Nepal army in combating terrorism, and for keeping peace. General Singh”s message was clear: India is keen to do more to mend its relationship with the Nepal army, which got offended when the government of India stopped supply of arms and ammunition as part of its overtures to the Maoists to join the “peace process”. The Nepal army was then fighting the Maoists.

Maoists, in Modi’s words, may have given up “yuddha” to embrace the “Buddha”, but they are largely responsible for the prevailing political instability, and the resultant erosion in the authority of the state. The continued instability and loss of credibility of the Nepalese state, and the failure of the “India-mediated and influenced political agenda” of 2005, has also created a legitimate space for other countries, mainly China, to enter Nepal as a stakeholder. In Beijing’s perception, China is as concerned about Nepal’s peace, stability and prosperity as India. The first Chinese military exercise, most likely to be followed by Nepal joining the One Belt, One Road initiative soon, is seen as an indication of the events to come.

The onus of restoring India’s credibility in Nepal falls on the likes of General Singh and his officials in the Ministry of External Affairs. It will require an objective assessment of where and how things went wrong, when India chose to recognise “Maoist revolutionaries” as the true representatives of Nepali people.

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Note – This article has been posted in The Indian Express on 24 April 2017.

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