Mani Shankar Aiyar- Between them, Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj, who love to call others “anti-national”, have succeeded in demolishing the bulwark of India’s security on its northern borders.
That bulwark was militarily strategic, but essentially predicated upon such a warm relationship with Nepal as to make them want to prioritize their relationship with India rather than play us off against the Chinese. While the post-Independence period has witnessed many ups and downs in this endeavor, we have largely succeeded maintaining an even keel with our northern neighbour. That equilibrium has been permanently deranged as a result of the vulgar muscularity the Modi-Swaraj duo deployed against Nepal’s sovereignty and the basic economic needs of her people when Nepal’s Constituent Assembly was moving virtually unanimously towards adopting a constitution after seven long years of persistent effort.
Not only did we attempt, in a wholly inappropriate imperial manner, to stall the vote until the prior conditions we had stipulated were met, and rode roughshod over Nepalese assurances that outstanding issues relating to the Terai would be addressed, we also conspired with electorally discredited elements in the Terai to impose a blockade that starved the people of Nepal of essential supplies all through the harsh winter months. For five months, the Nepal economy was “nearly crippled” (Rishi Iyengar in The Time, 24 March), “causing unprecedented hardship to Nepal’s people and generating strong anti-India sentiments among the country’s hill communities” (S.D. Muni in The Hindu, 28 March). Om Astha Rai, the well-known columnist for The Nepal Times, calculated that as a result of the blockade “Nepal lost over 200,000 jobs, inflation hit double-digits, post-earthquake reconstruction was delayed, and the economy was devastated to such an extent that it may take a decade to recover.”
What a disaster for 56 inches of Indian diplomacy! Instead of Nepal buckling to the pressure mounted on them by Modi and Swaraj, “paradoxically, the blockade has brought Nepal and China even closer”, as another well-informed Kathmandu-based commentator, Biswas Baral, has pointed out in The Wire, 28 March. Indeed, the blockade kick-started the conclusion of as many as ten different agreements when the Nepal PM, KP Oli Sharma, visited China for all of one whole week (20-27 March). “After decades of running scared”, observes Kanak Mani Dixit, a leading Nepal public intellectual and one well-disposed towards India, “it has suddenly become possible to talk to China.” He adds, “A trigger was required for Kathmandu to dare to reach out for deals with Beijing. India activated that trigger with its blockade.” (Nepali Times, 25 March)
Was this what Modi-Swaraj intended when they started grossly interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs, alienating the people and the government from India at just the juncture when India ought to have been celebrating our neighbour agreeing on a Constitution while promising to look into issues of the Madhesi and Janjati communities that remained to be resolved?
Did they really want Chinese political and economic penetration to cross the Himalaya and reach down to the Terai? Do they really welcome the prospect of all-weather multi-lane highways and railways racing across the Tibetan plateau to connect the Chinese mainland not only to Kathmandu, but eventually to Lumbini just the other side of the India-Nepal border? Did they really desire the prospect of Nepal almost halving its dependence on Haldia by accessing Tianjin port in China? Did they actually hope Nepal would become part of China’s One Belt-One Road plans? Do they really see Nepal as the “economic bridge” between China and India as proclaimed by the President Xi of China?
And did they really, really want the Nepalese chief of army staff to rush to Beijing in the immediate wake of his PM’s visit to widen and deepen Chinese military involvement in Nepal?
If they did, well, congratulations to them on the generosity of their hearts and the wisdom of their foresight. But as none of these were or have ever been the goals of India’s Nepal policy, do they not need to be severely reprimanded by patriotic Indians for this gratuitous betrayal of our national interests?
The Nepal PM gave us the opportunity to rebuild bridges between New Delhi and Kathmandu when he came visiting in February. While both PMs made polite noises, stressing that Oli had maintained the tradition of Nepalese PMs visiting India first, there was no significant development, let alone breakthrough, in either political or economic cooperation. Indeed, relations were so frosty that not even a joint communique; marked the end of the visit, the first time ever that a Nepalese Head of Government departed without such a document, perhaps the first time a distinguished visitor from abroad had ever refused to join the Indian host even in uttering platitudes. What a contrast to Oli visiting China a month later about which the Kathmandu Himalayan Times exulted that the agreements signed will “greatly reduce (Nepal’s) economic vulnerabilities…and will be long-remembered by this nation for its far-reaching positive implications for Nepal.”
Not only has our pre-eminence been shattered, we have lost the goodwill of an entire generation of Nepalese. What then was the rationale for all that Modi-Swaraj have done in the last few months to leach the India-Nepal relationship of every drop of the euphoria generated by Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014 soon after he took office?
Apparently the noble need to ensure that the Madhesis and the Janjatis and other smaller communities who inhabit the plains of Nepal adjoining India are not given a raw deal by Kathmandu Valley and those who live in the hills and soaring mountains of that very diverse country. Given what happened and is happening in Sri Lanka as a result of Sinhala majoritarianism seeking to shut out the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil minority, or the Burmese treatment of its Rohingiya Muslims, or of the ten million East Pakistanis who took refuge in India to escape West Pakistani brutality in 1971, or the continuing discrimination against Hindus and Christians in rump Pakistan, it is understandable that India should do all it can to caution Nepal against stamping on the aspirations of their fellow citizens of the Terai. Also, given the roti-beti rishta that much of North Bihar has with the Madhesis, it is necessary that we do what we can, while respecting Nepalese sovereignty, to warn them that institutionalizing discrimination will inevitably lead to the emotional disintegration of Nepal, and render it as two or more fractious nations within a single state. We could and should point out that Nepal’s future is tied up with equal citizenship for all their citizens.
But is the Modi-Swaraj way the appropriate way to do this? By emboldening the Nepalese to seek and find alternative relationships to the Nepal-India tie, how are we advancing the plains’ cause? Not bullying but gentle persuasion is the only way we can serve Terai interests without infringing Nepal’s sovereignty. That calls for subtlety and quiet diplomacy, not strong-arm tactics. Alas, the ways of the bully are built into the DNA of this government. The outlook is grim.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Rajya Sabha.) . This article has been posted in NDTV.COM on 29 March.