India-Nepal: chance to start afresh

India-Nepal: chance to start afresh

Last month, Nepal concluded elections to the federal parliament and provincial assemblies as per the constitution promulgated a little more than two years ago. These elections were crucial to prevent Nepal from a constitutional crisis (Article 296 requires the federal parliament to convene by January 21, 2018), and to bring Nepal back on the track of political stability, which the Himalayan nation had lost since the late 1990s.

The Left alliance of two Communist parties - the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) and the Maoist Centre (MC) - has won nearly two-thirds of the seats in the elections. A huge sense of relief pervades among the Nepali people that the country will now have a stable government after many years. This should also bring relief to Nepal's neighbours, particularly India, as a stable government will see through bilateral development projects pending for years due to instability, create enabling environment for long-term investment in sectors of mutual interest, and address other issues of bilateral concerns.

However, over the years, a psychological stumbling block has been created between Nepal and India. It reached a peak in the second half of September 2015, when Nepal was finalising its constitution following a gestation of eight years. The constitution was to address the issues that triggered the Maoist armed conflict that caused a huge amount of damage between 1996 and 2006. It was also to address other issues - that emerged or got reinforced in course of subsequent movements, including those in Madhesh - such as the one related to the principle of federalism.

The making of the new constitution was not a straight-forward process. A constituent assembly failed prematurely in the process. Another had to be protected from failing, as with it the entire nation would risk failing. Balancing multiple interests was challenging. So was to hold onto key issues. Amidst the challenges, the second constituent assembly pursued the course and adopted the constitution by the votes of some 90% of lawmakers.

That the constitution's adoption was not unanimous suggests there are issues that call for attention and action. And, in all fairness, all parties have committed themselves to addressing those gradually and in course of the implementation.

The reaction to the constitution-making process and its outcome by India, which not only shares some three-fourths of Nepal's borders but also close socio-cultural ties, was rather surprising. The Indian government, through the Ministry of External Affairs' statement on September 20 2015, dryly took "note" of the development. What followed afterwards was unfortunate.

All trade and transit points stopped the supply of essential items for several months, which the Indian government is perceived to have tolerated, if not facilitated. I am aware of the Indian government's denial of involvement in what is known as the 'blockade' in the Nepali vernacular. I am also aware of the otherwise ubiquitous perception of it pervading in Nepal.

Failed diplomacy

The incident was, at best, the peak of the failure of rational diplomacy. The diplomatic corps based in Kathmandu could not map the situation unfolding and convey its concerns, if any, among key players in both capitals well in advance. Nor could it check the emotional political response that was brewing in New Delhi. This unfortunate saga could have been avoided.

The 'blockade' ended, and the supply of essentials resumed. What needs to be done on both sides is to heal the scar left by the incident. However, the way public opinion is being shaped in India on Nepal is not that encouraging. One of New Delhi's prominent newspapers published a piece on "Why India must speak up strongly on Nepal." The author urged India to discard the "diffidence of not appearing interventionist" in dealing with Nepal. In another piece in late December, he lamented India's "loss of political control" over Nepal, which has dragged China to "fill the vacuum."

Its bigger rival newspaper was even more alarming, with a piece titled, "Nepal: In pro-China Oli, India faces a Himalayan foreign policy challenge," following the December poll victory of the KP Oli-led Left alliance. And, these are just representative pieces.

Indo-Nepal relations, especially on the socio-cultural front, are historically cemented, and will remain so. Any effort to undermine them will fail, and should. On a diplomatic front, Nepal's geopolitical location dictates it to maintain equidistant relationships with China and India, which she will, and should. To say that a certain leader or a party will push Nepal more towards China or India is just hyperbole, and, diplomatically, grossly incorrect.

As in every dynamic relationship, there are, and will be, some hiccups every now and then. We should use such opportunities to pause, to reflect and to reenergise, not to create a wall of mistrust. The new government in Nepal can offer an opportunity to start afresh.

(The writer is Director, Forum-Asia and a PhD candidate at Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand)

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