India's costly policy failure on Nepal

The election of a communist leader as the prime minister of Nepal, backed by its Maoist chief and the right-wing RPP-Nepal amid a crisis with the northern neighbour, could be the worst possible news for New Delhi but this is a fact India has to live with now.

The defeat of Sushil Koirala, the candidate who India would have loved to see returning to power, also made it evident that the country’s Nepal policy has witnessed a serious failure and it will not be easy to overcome this soon.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in August 2014, observers of India’s neighbourhood policy felt optimistic. They viewed it as a positive shift in New Delhi’s take on its smaller neighbours; an essential factor to secure it interests in South Asia, particularly in view of China’s growing shadow in the region.

But just over a year since that ‘historic’ visit – when he impressed its leadership and people and pledged India would never interfere in the Nepal’s internal affairs – things started taking a 180-degree turn.

The main reason for the sudden deterioration in the India-Nepal relation is not China, but India’s mismanaged anger vented over Nepal’s new constitution. The relationship between India and Nepal has always been marked by a contradiction. While the two sovereign nations had signed a unique treaty of peace and friendship in 1950 – that allows nationals of both countries to move freely in each other’s territory – they also saw a low phase in 1989-90 when India’s economic blockade pushed Nepal to the brink.

The current situation, as a Nepali representative in India said recently, is worse than that of 1989. Could this scenario have been avoided? India certainly could have played its card in a way that befits a regional leader. However, its angry reaction over the new Nepali constitution was delayed, misdirected and was perceived to be interfering.

India’s concern over the constitution has three main reasons: the exclusive nature of Nepal’s new document as far as Madhesis, Tharus and other communities are concerned; Kathmandu’s lack of interest towards New Delhi’s concern for a more inclusive document, and the worry about chaos in southern Nepal spilling over into the border state of Bihar, which is in the middle of a crucial poll.

But India’s over-reaction was, perhaps, fuelled more by the neighbour’s decision to become a secular nation, and not a Hindu state. For the right-wing sympathisers in power in New Delhi, it was not satisfying. Besides, the Nepali parties’ more accommodative approach towards China and the West in the constitutional decision-making could also have irked India. Nevertheless, India had no business advising Nepal to make corrections in its newly promulgated constitution as a counter strategy. The border “embargo” made it worse.

A constitution is an organic document that evolves with time. There is no living democracy that has achieved perfecti-on overnight. Even India, which takes pride in its ‘largest democracy’ tag, is yet to include some provisions into its constitution that Nepal has already done.

India’s rigid stand
If Nepal, which was a monarchy until even a decade ago, has struggled to reach a consensus before shaping a controversial law of the land, it is its own concern to better its record. And, if India was worried over Nepal’s problems affecting its territory because of the new constitution, then it should have taken up the matter much earlier.

Delayed as it was, India’s Plan B should have been to welcome Nepal’s first democratic constitution, something it had said long ago, to show that its principle is consistent.

Instead, it created a mess by taking a rigid stand in an already chaotic situation while also alienating Nepal’s common people with its political leadership. After its over-activism in the wake of the devastating Nepal earthquakes to beat strategic competitors like China and Pakistan earned brickbats, India should have used the opportunity created by the constitutional divide to bridge the temporary gap. Alas, it messed it up again.

India’s goof-up made it evident that it has not been able to devise a new policy for a Nepal in transition. Traditionally, India has followed a two-faced approach towards its neighbour, i.e., supporting co-existence of a constitutional monarchy and a multiparty democracy to keep the Maoists (and hence, the Chinese influence) at bay.

After King Gyanendra dissolved the parliament in 2002, India’s approach changed to soft protest and persuasion. These approaches always required a balance, for Kathmandu never failed to play the Beijing card whenever its gap with New Delhi widened.

But India did itself a great disservice this time by not practising what it preached and allowing Nepal to perceive it as a hegemonic neighbour. The country should focus on dealing with a new Nepal now and not take sides internally, for that will only see its aggrieved parties create more problems at its expense. If the spillover at the border is New Delhi’s prime concern, it needs to engage with Kathmandu diplomatically by giving it due respect as a sovereign nation.

Maoist chief Prachanda has  met the Chinese envoy already and discussed the blockade. Mo-re such moves will be initiated by a nationalist Kathmandu under the new regime. Is New Delhi ready?

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