Between the lines

  • Geo-political realities and Nepal’s overdependence on India make their ties complex
- Lok Raj Baral, Kathmandu

Aug 19, 2016-

Interviews of politicians and role incumbents should be read between the lines. Former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Kamal Thapa has disclosed some things which had remained only as assumptions of some critics. Thapa has, in the course of an interview with Saptahik Nepal on August 21, revealed that India was not happy with the unreliable tongues of Nepali leaders who say one thing in Delhi and another in Kathmandu. At a meeting of senior party leaders, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prachanda disclosed that India was against making Nepal a secular state, and that they had assured the Indians that they would make efforts to remove it or reframe the word ‘secularism’ in the constitution. However, it can be confidently stated that these points could not be the only sources of misunderstanding between the two countries. Kamal Thapa also said that during his frequent trips to India, no Indian leader had ever raised the issue of a secular agenda. 

Indian concerns

This admission suggests that there are other areas of divergence between Nepal and India, like the Madhesi demand for an inclusive constitution, the federalisation agenda which is perceived as being problematic by Nepal’s immediate neighbours, and chances of political instability if the constitution was not amended. Yet, the Indian leadership or diplomatic functionaries have never spoken against federalism while China seems to be weighing possible dangers to its security. Surprisingly, Nepali political leaders themselves have created a mess out of some of the contentious agenda requiring immediate resolution. Since such domestic issues have their linkages with external relations, any failure to convince stakeholders will create perennial conflicts.The Nepali state’s declining capacity, fractured politics and kleptocracy cannot manage crises. 

When politicians who rely on manufactured nationalism or xenophobia to remain popular fail to avoid problems, they tend to be rigid in reaching a solution. The divide between nationalists and others have not only vitiated the political environment with polarisation but also helped to precipitate problems. Then what would be the strategic narrative of Nepal, India and China in the changing context of a power disequilibrium? What perspectives have these neighbours developed to put relations on a positive track of cooperation?

The post-constitution developments in Nepal and the defiance shown by the Madhesi parties against the statute have dragged India into Nepal’s domestic problems. India’s facilitation, involvement or benign interference through what is called ‘micro-management’ in political circles is a reality in Nepali political history. Nevertheless, India’s temptation to be cognisant of developments might have become ‘overbearing’ to some, though it has not put pressure on Nepal to adopt a particular regime despite being sympathetic to its democratic struggle.

It seems that India is guided by two main considerations in its Nepal policy: continuity of traditional relations with some structural guarantees and taking in good stride Nepal’s active role in the international arena. Yet, Nepal’s sense of historical identity and aspiration to be fully independent in conducting its relations with others sometimes clash with India’s own aspiration of a regional, and eventually, world power. Geo-political realities along with Nepal’s overdependence on India make their relations complex, and this is reflected from time to time in their divergent perceptions and actions.

The China factor

China has always figured prominently in Nepal-India relations ever since its coming to Tibet. Nepal’s establishment of formal diplomatic relation with the northern neighbour in 1955 had created a psychological wave towards diversification of foreign policy. Taking it further, the then prime minister BP Koirala took steps to establish relations with Israel and Pakistan, about which India might have been unhappy without showing it. Yet, BP’s problems with India were both perceptual and personal. His association with Nehru’s opponents (socialists) and his youthfulness and dynamism did not go well with Nehru’s cautious approach to handling foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the escalating Sino-Indian border problem put much pressure on the Koirala government to maintain a balance between the two belligerents. Nevertheless, Koirala was conscious of the southern neighbour’s sensitivity, and some fresh proposals from the Chinese side to open the northern border were avoided. This idea was revived after the 1960 coup with king Mahendra and China agreeing to connect Kathmandu and Kodari on the Nepal-China border. Nehru’sdisapproval of Mahendra’s coup and the hit-and-run activities of the Nepali Congress carried from across the Nepal-India border also prompted the king to be closer to China. It is interesting to note that despite such bonhomie with China, Mahendra always respected Indian sensitivities and reversed many decisions that could have favoured China.

Today, Nepal’s strategic importance has been further increased by a new kind of geo-political activism in South Asia. Yet, relations between China and India, to date, are both competitive and cooperative, though both are obsessed with each other’s strategic moves. It does not mean that they are likely to be involved in a war. It is not a Cold War-like relationship either, but rather it what Noah Fieldman calls a “cool war, which is a little warmer than cold” war. 

It is also significant that both powers want to avoid war or extreme bitterness as was observed in the early 1960s. Their larger interests will not be served by generating conflicts on one pretext or the other, and hence, peace and a stable border have become their priorities. If the Sino-Indian border becomes a ‘dominant conflict’, their strategic dissonance will be evident in the formation of regional and global alliances with long-term perspectives of emerging scenarios in international politics. And China is on the radar of the big powers that want to check its threats, perceived or real, in the Asia-Pacific region. But China is still a lone power of near superpower status having limited formal strategic alliances at the global level. Now it is up to Nepali political leaders to modulate the cooperative and competitive dimensions of its two neighbourly powers and turn triangular relations into its favour.

Baral is a professor and former 

ambassador of Nepal to India

Published: 19-08-2016 13:56

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