Introspection and India

  • While Nepali relations with India are highly politicised, Indian relations with Nepal are highly bureaucratised
Introspection and India

Jul 24, 2014-

Even as Sushma Swaraj, Indian Minister for External Affairs, arrives in Nepal, a lot of the discourse surrounding Nepal’s relations with India still involves plenty of resentment and negativity. ‘India-bashing’ is said to be a favourite sport in national politics, and that perspective seems to have translated strongly into the public’s perception as well.

Yet, with India’s rise as a global player, and with Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister, sentiments of optimism are being perceived throughout Nepal. Indeed, academics and commentators are quick to underscore the incredible opportunity the remarkable growth of India and China bring, along with Modi’s seemingly positive outlook on Nepal. There is no question, then, that our approach to India needs evaluation and reassessment as the Nepal-India Joint Commission, the minister-level body overseeing the entire gamut of Nepal-India relations, meets for the next two days.

Long past due

Before proceeding to India-Nepal relations, it is relevant to explore why this commission, formed in 1990, hasn’t actually met for the past 23 years. The Commission was intended to meet every alternate year, yet, a minister-level body hasn’t looked at collective relations between two incredibly close neighbours for over two decades. It seems particularly odd that two nations that have decided to exist perpetually through ‘friendship and peace’ don’t actually have top level foreign policy leaders that meet each other, even at a very reasonable two-year interval.

The explanations for the absence of these meetings is, in fact, a recurring theme in our relations with India, and serves to highlight one of the key challenges with our southern neighbour. While it is quite evident that our inability to formulate an overarching national identity and discern our national interests has a role in this matter, it is Nepal’s underlying political instability (which, in turn, muddles our national interests) that serves as a major hindrance to carrying out foreign policy work at the highest level. This is because cooperation once agreed-to in certain areas can still be severely undermined by a change in governmental leadership. And although governments are bound to change anywhere in the world, our national interests abroad ought to be particularly stable, uninfluenced by the whims of political flux.

In Nepal, the political sphere is incredibly pervasive and permeates into our relationship with India. The overwhelming politicisation of our relationship more often than not leads to a backlash against any sort of deal or agreement with India (see BIPPA 2011), and this is certainly detrimental to facilitating minister-level talks. Coupled with security threats during the 1995-2006 insurgency, this politicisation effectively wiped out any consideration of a meeting of this Commission.

View from here

The situation outlined above emphasises Nepali weaknesses but what do we make of the image many of us have of India, and the ‘anti-Indian’ sentiments that are so widespread in Nepal? Isn’t India at fault for not giving continuity to the Commission and isn’t India at fault for exerting too much pressure on us, especially when it comes to unequal agreements and treaties?

While the question requires a lengthy and nuanced explanation, it is fairly evident that any sort of ‘micromanagement’ that India engages in is a direct result of Nepal’s internal weaknesses, and is something that wouldn’t happen if we had stronger diplomacy and solid political institutions. In fact, ‘anti-Indianism’ is a clear product of a weak political culture, serving two distinct political agendas. First, blaming India for Nepal’s inability to move forward is used predominantly to shift the blame from national leaders impotent in their leadership; and second, ‘anti-Indianism’ is used as if it were analogous to patriotism and nationalism by double talking political leaders who stir up anti-India sentiments while not in power to garner political support.

Silver linings

Having leaders who blatantly disparage India when they’re not in power and keep quiet when they are in positions of power does not speak well of our politics. And because of how very unconvincing our leaders are, top level Indian leaders do not engage with us, leaving that task to their bureaucracy. So while Nepali relations with India are highly politicised, Indian relations with Nepal, on the other hand, are highly bureaucratised. Thus, when technocrats and bureaucrats—instead of high-level political leaders—deal with Nepal, they resort to haggling over even the most petty of issues and this is widely seen as India unnecessarily resorting to being overbearing in Nepal.

Furthermore, this double talk our political leaders resort to induces, rather disconcertingly, a lack of trust on part of the Indian political establishment that Nepal will provide an environment conducive to Indian security. This has a large role in inducing India to ‘micromanage’ and attempt to influence our politics. Moreover, in the days to come, with Modi possessing a strong democratic mandate to be stronger in global matters, our inclination to disparage India must be checked so that we are not seen as an obstruction to Indian security.

With more capable political institutions and resolute diplomacy, we would have a lot more leverage in our relationship with India. So while there are asymmetrical power dynamics that exist in our treaties with India—for instance, Indian has a monopoly over the supply of our arms—there will always exist provisions to modify or abrogate these treaties. We can level out these deals in accordance with our sovereign nation’s rights with the appropriate homework, and with the proper diplomatic articulation of our national interests.    

However, we are unable to articulate our national interests because we haven’t been able to establish what our external national interests are in the first place. Regardless of our pursuits regionally, we need to convince India (and China, in the same vein) that our goals converge in terms of maintaining regional security and stifling anti-India (and anti-China) elements. If India (and China) can get what it wants through friendship and mutual trust, why would it bear the costs of political involvement? Ultimately, a prosperous and democratic Nepal is in the interests of both India and China.

It is for us to recognise that India bashing is by no means politically meaningful nor productive. We then need to ascertain our national interests—hydropower, water resources, tourism and trade and transit can be areas of potential growth here—and incorporate these interests into our foreign policy. The practice of our foreign policy needs to move beyond agreements that bear uncanny resemblance to aid packages, and undertake projects that establish a symmetrical relationship because Nepal has plenty to offer and Nepal is an independent, sovereign state.

Koirala is pursuing economics and political science at Grinnell College, the US

Published: 25-07-2014 09:09

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