Print Edition - 2015-10-28  |  Oped

Self-fulfilling prophecy

  • It is time politicians stop sacrificing Nepali people for political exigencies
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
India has helped create a new generation of Nepalis who will continue to look at India with suspicion, much like Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Much of the work that Narendra Modi did in his first year in office has been undone

Oct 28, 2015-

Throughout the last eight years when the new constitution was being discussed, members of the ruling parties had been voicing fears that if we allow a single Madhes province, then the province would be able to blockade Kathmandu under India’s influence. The blockade, unfortunately, has come sooner than expected.

The constitution, which was supposed to lay the groundwork for political stability, justice and prosperity, has done just the opposite.

The country is now in crisis and opinions are divided. The government insists that we will not bow down to pressure, indicating that this could be a protracted standoff. No country should be facing such a humanitarian crisis so soon after a devastating earthquake. Yet, it is difficult to assign accountability for the ongoing crisis.

We could perhaps blame KP Oli for his hardline stance, for speeding up the constitution-drafting process and for alienating key stakeholders from the decision-making process in order to become  prime minister. Or we could blame the Madhesis and Tharus for not respecting a democratic decision-making process. Or should we, perhaps, blame India for instigating and supporting the blockade and the Madhesi movement?

If we cannot separate the right from the wrong, would we be able to move ahead? Or should we, instead, choose to focus on dialogue, build an environment of trust and find a new solution.

India’s balancing act

India  has always sought to balance Madhesi ‘sub-nationalism’ with ‘Nepali’ nationalism. Its silence during the constitution-drafting process indicated as much. However, India’s knee-jerk reaction in the final days of the constitution-drafting process indicated that all was not well.

During his two visits to Nepal in 2014, Modi was able to restore India’s relationship with the hill community. India’s strategy to contain the Maoists and the Chinese by supporting the strident Madhes Movement had severely dented India’s relationship with the hill community. Modi’s visits indicated that he prioritised the hill community as key to serving India’s interests better.

India’s knee-jerk reaction, in the past, has always involved China. The 1989 blockade, imposed during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, was a reaction to Nepal’s decision to import arms from China. India’s support to the Nepali Maoists and the subsequent overthrow of king Gyanendra was also inspired by the former king’s growing proximity to China.

Despite growing understanding between India and China, their relationship has not gone beyond hedging. Furthermore, the politicians and Babus in the Indian establishment have rarely been able to digest China’s growing influence and leverage in Nepal. The intricate triangular balance between the US, India and China relations, combined with India’s ‘trust no one’ policy means that geo-strategy will continue to make Nepal’s politics a messy affair.

India was able to use the Madhesi movement as a pretext to slow down supplies entering Nepal through the border points. It was used as a negative sanction to make the Nepali political parties, particularly the CPN-UML and the UCPN (Maoist) do what they would not otherwise do—accept the demands of the Madhes and move away from Chinese sphere of influence.

Multiple repercussions

However, India’s move has clearly backfired on two fronts. On the one hand, India has helped create a new generation of Nepalis who will continue to look at India with suspicion, much like Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Much of the work that Narendra Modi did in his first year in office has been undone and it will be very difficult for India to regain the trust of the Nepali people. On the other hand, India’s move has triggered a range of public deterrents that will lessen its influence in the future. The deterrents range from an effective use of social media to international exposure, and from an assertive China to growing Nepali nationalism.

Since 1950, Nepal’s nationalism had always had a synergistic relationship with China. In our political spectrum, the forces historically closest to China were the royalists, anti-Indian nationalists and communists. It is no coincidence that they are together again.

India tried to frame the blockade in terms of a humanitarian crisis, a civil conflict and a concern for its national security. India’s message to Nepali politicians and Nepali people is clear: if you don’t do our bidding, we are ready to impose a negative sanction. As a matter of principle, India has always played a game of political brinksmanship when it comes to maintaining its influence in Nepal and it has not shied away from using ‘sufficient force’.

Given its own bias, partly generated by Oli’s stand against outside influence, the international community seemed as though it was inclined to support India when it came to geo-strategy. Over time, however, the international community has realised the extent of India’s hand in the current political crisis. The impact of India’s non-cooperation in resolving the supply issue has had severe humanitarian costs and has unleashed unprecedented suffering.

India’s use of power in bilateral relations largely remains invisible, and only comes to the fore when there is resistance from Nepal’s political elites and decision-makers. The last time we saw the potential for India’s open intervention was when Pushpa Kamal Dahal, as the prime minister, sought to remove Rookmangud Katwal as the army chief.

India’s intervention, unlike those in the past, has had severe repercussions, both for India and Nepal. Nepal has developed what can be called ‘divided nationalism’ increasing the divide between the Madhesis and the hill populace. This might allow India’s mediating role in the future, but this will also lessen India’s leverage among the mainstream political parties and hold over individual politicians.

Way forward

China may very well be a partner in economic development and supportive of our nationalistic fervour, but it will neither be sufficient to sustain our economic growth nor strong enough to prop up political stability. Bringing oil from China is an alternative, but it is not a sustainable option. Most Nepali people’s sense of proximity to China is based on blank maps they have studied in schools. In order to realise the difficulty of the terrain and the distance, one only needs to look back at Kathmandu from Lhasa or Kunming.

Nepal’s landlocked nature will become a major constraint to economic prosperity in the face of worsening relationship with India. Nepal must develop diplomatic finesse and strength of character to deal with India.The current government’s efforts to support the country’s economy through goodwill gestures is not a practical solution, and cannot sustain Nepal’s nationalist fervour in the long-term.

KP Oli may have won personal political battles, but Nepal as a nation is yet to emerge victorious. This requires a greater sympathy to differences of opinion, a sincere desire to accommodate diversity, and a pragmatic approach to politics. It is time politicians, whether it is KP Oli or Narendra Modi, stop sacrificing Nepali people for political exigencies.

The question of right or wrong has now become a moot point, because political arguments can never be universal. The priority is to immediately resolve the crisis, and ensure a pragmatic political process that can ensure stability, justice and prosperity. It requires giving up on personal political ambitions, subsuming inflated egos, and working together with different communities.

Published: 28-10-2015 08:43

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