Strategic folly

salman haiderBy Salman haidar (10 November, 2015) – Among the earliest international agreements entered into by independent India was the 1950 Treaty with Nepal. This established a new basis for relations between the two countries after the departure of Britain, the former paramount power, and set out a series of principles to direct the India-Nepal relationship in a mutually acceptable manner. The fact that this was one of the earliest forays into foreign affairs by the new government in New Delhi implicitly acknowledged the priority attached to this relationship from the very start. The 1950 treaty itself contains far-reaching provisions to bind the countries closer, such as free movement from one to the other, freedom of employment, a common customs regime, unique links between the two armies, as well as many other similar provisions, and can be regarded as an international model for good neighbourly relations.

Much has happened in the intervening period, especially in Nepal which has undergone more than one sweeping change in its system of government, but the basic structure of the relationship as set out in 1950 has endured. India and Nepal remain the closest of neighbours, with intermeshed history and culture that underpin their ties in the modern age.

Beyond bilateral closeness lies an all-important strategic convergence. For India, the Himalayan mountain chain is its immemorial northern frontier, defined by geography, culture, and security, with strategic factors being the predominant consideration. India has always reacted against efforts by third countries to enter the sensitive Himalayan region from which there is easy access to the Indian heartland. To strengthen the links with its strategically important mountain neighbour, India has been at pains to play the part of Nepal’s main development partner and reliable friend in all circumstances, so that the smaller country should not feel compelled to seek succour from other sources. Thus India has been ready to go the extra mile when required to keep its relationship with Nepal in good repair.

Even so, it has not always been smooth sailing: Nepal being a sovereign entity, with a history of freedom and independence considerably longer than India’s, cannot be constrained to choose its course according to Indian inclinations, and it has often asserted its own view and perception of where its interest lies. For instance, the two countries differ in international forums like the UN in a matter like the rights of landlocked countries, where Nepal has a strongly articulated viewpoint different from that of India. But such differences, though they can on occasion be strongly expressed, have not upset the basic structure of the relationship. Given the unique intimacy of the ties bequeathed by history and prolonged human association, even acute differences when they have arisen have been resolved through discussion and mutual adjustment, without closing the path to ongoing cooperation.

From India’s point of view, this level of mutuality is important and must be sustained, for a settled relationship of friendship and collaboration with Nepal is the cornerstone of its Himalayan strategy. Over the years, there have been quite a few ups and downs to contend with, and Nepal has sometimes chafed at what it saw as overbearing Indian demands: the 1950 treaty itself contained some provisions that eventually needed to be amended so that it did not appear to be loaded in India’s favour. More testing of the relationship was the occasional deliberate gesture by Nepal when it reached out to China in a manner that could disturb India, as in matters of land access and other issues with security overtones. Though in recent decades cross-Himalayan relationships have become more stable than they were at the time of the India-China conflict, there can be no ignoring long-term strategic concerns in the Himalayas which reflect the country’s unchanging interests.

It is against this background that the recent contretemps in India-Nepal relations need to be assessed. Though there have been occasions in the past when differences have been acute; both sides have not permitted them to overshadow the relationship and the differences have not been carried beyond a point. Nor, in the midst of high-level exchanges in New Delhi and Kathmandu, has there been anything like the recent visit of a very senior Indian diplomat to carry a very public message to Kathmandu that, in the circumstances, could only fail to cut any ice, indeed, it compounded the problem by giving the appearance of trying to push Nepal in a direction it had not chosen for itself. This episode continues to rankle and may become a long-term blot to contend with.

To add to the problem is the damaging effect of what has been termed a blockade of Nepal by India. In recent weeks, goods traffic from India has been badly affected, leading to hardship in Nepal and emphasizing its vulnerability as a landlocked country. India denies responsibility, pointing out that fractiousness within Nepal itself is the cause of the holdups, with the aggrieved Madhesi population preventing goods movement across their territory. Narrowly viewed, the Indian disavowal may be correct but the supportive good neighbourly practice that India has tried to make the hallmark of its relations with Nepal would have required more active effort by New Delhi to mitigate Kathmandu’s problem. And what is now perceived to be India’s tough handling of the situation in Nepal can well fuel apprehensions elsewhere in the neighbourhood, where India’s reach is no less significant and where India’s strategic interests are equally closely engaged.

Nepal’s long-lasting troubles in adopting a new Constitution have thus had a damaging fallout within the region. The interruption of traffic, especially of petroleum products, has led Nepal to seek alternatives to the traditional supplier India, for this is a commodity where Nepal is wholly dependent on the outside world. There is only one alternative source of bulk supply, and that is China, so it was only to be expected that Nepal would approach that country at this time of crisis, as it has done, and that China should respond positively.

India has unfortunately become so involved in the minutiae of the constitutional and political developments in Nepal that it seems to have lost sight of its basic strategic interests in that country. Nepal has been a historic buffer between India and the trans-Himalaya, and with the rapid opening up of that region, the strategic relevance of Nepal for India has only become more significant. Far from magnifying differences with Kathmandu, the necessary course for New Delhi is to reaffirm its strategic ties and make every effort to repair the relations damaged by the events of the last few months. For this, it needs a correction of course and a return to the supportive policies it had successfully followed for so long.

Salman Haider is India’s Former Foreign Secretary. This article has been originally published in THE STATESMAN on 10 Nov. 2015.


Comment Here