Oped

Indian inflections

  • The uniqueness and inseparability of Nepal-India relations must be looked upon as a strength, not a weakness
- ACHYUT WAGLE

Feb 6, 2018-When Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj landed in Kathmandu last week for a 23-hour ‘friendly’ sojourn, Nepali cinema theatres screening the Bollywood movie Padmaavat were overcrowded, coupled with extensive reviews of the same in vernacular media of all sizes and frequencies. Also, Kathmandu was abuzz with young cricketer Sandeep Lamichhane’s debut in the Indian Premiere League (IPL) and the elite were elated by the Indian government’s decision to award Padma Shri, one of India’s highest public honours, to Nepali ophthalmologist Dr Sanduk Ruit. An earlier Padma Shri winner Anuradha Koirala was just anointed as the chief of Province 3.

Needless to say, Padmaavat is a Hindi movie, and the IPL and Padma Shri are essentially meant to recognise the achievements of Indian citizens. But, no nationalistic politics or so called sovereign pride comes in between the spontaneity with which many such feats continue to be exchanged between Nepal and India, literally, from time immemorial. There is an inexhaustive list of economic, social and cultural assimilations of endless variations between the peoples of these two countries. In contrast, even the most learned and ardent of China defenders in Nepal hardly know the name of a single Chinese superstar or the latest movie release in China. Other forms of day-to-day socio-cultural connections are virtually nonexistent between China and Nepal. This explains the depth, uniqueness and inseparability of Nepal-India relations; as Swaraj rightly reiterated, the ‘boundless friendship’. And, this is neither the outcome of a political or diplomatic endeavour, nor is it likely to be disrupted by politicians’ inadvertent misadventures.

Extra-mile diplomacy

But, unfortunately these very tenets of spontaneity and boundlessness are also a source of the problems often faced by our relationship, which in fact forced Swaraj to undertake an extra-mile of diplomacy in the form of a rather hastily planned trip to Kathmandu; ‘without an agenda’. Both the Indian public opinion factory and policy-making elites in Lutyens’ Delhi have so far failed to recognise this depth and inseparability of bonds and, instead, are incessantly paranoid about the possibility of ‘Nepal irreversibly falling into Chinese laps’. This paranoia was exacerbated by the emphatic victory of the communist alliance of CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) in the recently concluded federal and provincial polls. UML Chairman KP Oli, who in recent years had tangibly portrayed himself as being pro-Chinese, employed nationalism as a main campaign platform. Delhi’s worries have been compounded as he is the most likely candidate to take over as the next prime minister of Nepal.

Swaraj’s visit had three apparent objectives. One, she wanted to silence the critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government who had alleged that BJP’s foreign policy failure pushed Nepal into the Chinese embrace. At least, she wanted to be seen as putting in renewed efforts of engagement with the changing political balance in Nepal. Two, she wanted to convey an unambiguous message to Oli that India is not only ready to cooperate with him as prime minister, but also wants to show that the formation of the new Nepali government does not go against the Indian will. At the same time, she needed to communicate to ‘friendly’ political forces like Madhes-based parties that engaging the emergent power in Kathmandu is diplomacy as usual and that they need not panic unnecessarily and assume that India has dramatically shifted its policy. And three, she knew that the Indian theory of ‘pliability’ in diplomacy (all credit to Prof SD Muni) could perhaps be best experimented when political volatility or transition is at its peak, like in present day Nepal.

Shift and success

Kathmandu’s over enthusiastic intelligentsia hastened to interpret the Swaraj visit as an indication of a key shift in New Delhi’s position on Nepal’s constitution, which is an exaggerated extrapolation of Indian cognisance of recent successful polls. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) press release, put out upon Swaraj’s return to Delhi, conspicuously avoided any reference to Nepal’s constitution. Omission is obviously a calculated strategy to avoid fresh controversy, but it certainly does not represent a U-turn on India’s position until the Madhesis themselves drop the agenda of constitution amendment from their political to-do list.

The tireless portrayal, mainly by UML functionaries that Swaraj’s visit was India’s unilateral decision is only one half of the truth. The other half was Oli’s realisation that he cannot become, or function, as prime minister without moderating his anti-India posturing. Therefore, it was in his interests to invite Swaraj, as the nationalist leader may yet be able to allay Delhi’s concern regarding his new found love for China. Through Oli’s one-on-one talk with Swaraj, New Delhi not only promised him more pragmatic support than Beijing can offer but also warned him to refrain from using China as a bargaining chip. Oli and his trusted lieutenants’ changed demeanour are now glaringly obvious. This is exactly what prompted Delhi to claim this visit an outright diplomatic success.

It is also important to note here that the visit was not a surprise but a well-choreographed move, at least from the Indian side. Swaraj’s team comprised of the Indian foreign secretary, the Indian ambassador to Nepal, the spokesperson at the MEA and the chief of the Nepal desk in the MEA, among others. Everything was official from the side of the Indians. Fumbling was only on the part of Nepali politicos. Nepali leaders who met Swaraj deliberately wanted to avoid the presence of representatives or note takers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This practice is increasingly adopted by Nepali politicians and is clearly detrimental to enhancing our institutional memory in foreign affairs.

Inflections

The Swaraj visit may have created an environment of trust between New Delhi and Nepal’s government in waiting. But that is not enough to institutionalise Nepal-India relations amidst emerging geopolitical competition in the region. The fact that there cannot be any substitute to Nepal-India relations in terms of depth, expanse and variety of interaction must be treated not as a weakness but as a strength. For informed diplomatic decisions in the future, communication channels beyond and in addition to formal set ups must open between Delhi and Kathmandu. Otherwise, only the grammar, and not the quality of the interaction, will change.

Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst 

Published: 06-02-2018 08:01

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