Continuity and change

  • Nepal-India relationship should move towards a development-centric security policy from the traditional military one
- BABURAM BHATTARAI
To make our democracy all-encompassing, we need to make our system more inclusive and accommodative of the concerns of those who have been left out

Oct 26, 2016-It is an opportune moment for Nepal to reflect on the past, and figure out the continuities and changes in its foreign policies, particularly with our most important neighbour India. We must objectively evaluate what exists before us today—appreciate the high-points in our relationship, but also honestly introspect in order to make advancements in the upcoming days.

Nepal’s peculiar geo-political situation—its location between two emerging global economic powerhouses, India and China—has had a significant impact on all of its major political developments. Currently, there is also the particular context of the formation of an Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which is working to build measures for conducting our relationship with India in a more systematic and amicable manner. Meanwhile, we are witnessing a more boisterous India which is effectively carving out an influential position for itself globally, and the shifts that take place in Indian policies send out strongest reverberations across the subcontinent. Concurrently, the transitions in Nepali politics affect India as well—less but with strategic consequences nevertheless. Thus, while Nepal and India have their own individual battles to fight and their own success stories to create, the challenges and possibilities that confront both these countries become a shared one since we have been bound together in an extraordinary relationship by history, geography and cultural and social bonds. I feel that now is the time to initiate a new era of shared prosperity between the two countries. 

Keeping house in order

A few areas need to be addressed while talking about shared prosperity. The promulgation of the constitution last year marked a beginning for Nepal and now we can decisively strive for political stability and socio-economic transformation. However, to make our democracy all-encompassing, we also need to make our system more inclusive and accommodative of the concerns of those who have been left out, particularly the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis. Internal political unity is a necessary precondition for a stable foreign policy.

Moreover, frequent change in government under the current parliamentary system has increasingly dismayed the Nepali populace. There are ample grounds for seeking a directly elected executive head to ensure a strong and stable polity that can effectively fast-track developmental pursuits. No doubt, a perpetually insecure and unstable Nepal, despite the new constitution, would be unfortunate and disadvantageous for our southern neighbour as well. 

Enhancement of security within the region has historically stood out as the principal determinant of India’s foreign policy towards its immediate neighbours. Today, I feel, there is a need to look into the root causes of the sense of insecurity that prevails between Nepal and India through new lenses. We need to transcend the traditional approach through peace and good governance, economic development and prosperity, and scientifically manage the border-related issues for our foreign policy to be more productive and constructive.

It must also be stated that developing friendly relations with our northern neighbour is a part of our observance of a non-aligned foreign policy and a geo-political compulsion. We expect assistance and cooperation in our development endeavours from China as well, and India need not view this with suspicion. There should be no doubts about our commitment to prohibit any activities on our land that may pose threats to the security concerns of both our neighbours.

Need for some rethinking 

In the coming days, water, food and energy security is going to be of paramount interest to India as its population is expected to surpass China’s within a decade. Primarily, the notion and need of sharing our river waters will acquire greater significance. There have often been worries and distrust between Nepal and India about water resources. We need to be more judicious, realistic and reasonable to avoid water-related disputes in order to unleash Nepal’s hydro-potential for the benefit of both the countries.

Nepal was once an exporter of many goods to India and the balance of trade was in Nepal’s favour. Today we have a drastically different story. Trade between Nepal and India has increased by many folds, but we import far more from India than we export to it. An unsustainable balance of payment hovering over our head forever is not going to benefit India either. Extreme economic differences between the two countries are detrimental to a healthy and balanced relationship. Thus, a refurbished economic and development policy is imperative to reduce this gap. Liberal trade facilitation measures, development of trade infrastructure and connectivity, and productive investments in Nepal’s mega projects are crucial for the country’s economic growth. To encourage sustainable direct investment in Nepal, the Bippa agreement was signed with India during my prime-ministership.

Nepal has experienced three economic blockades of varying magnitudes from India. In all three, it is the people who suffered. If we honestly evaluate the consequences of these blockades, we can say that each episode compelled Nepal to shift its dependence towards its northern neighbour and led to further fuelling of anti-Indian sentiments among the Nepali people. The last of these blockades, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, was particularly hard for our people and economy. And these blockades have not produced any tangible benefits for India either. So there needs to be some serious rethinking about the way India handles neighbourly differences and reacts to disagreements.

Time for recalibration 

Nepal occupies an extremely strategic and favourable location—between two emerging economic powerhouses—for investors, manufacturers and businessmen. Trade between India and China is already hitting a record level—close to $100 billion, 20 times their trade a decade ago. A stronger India-China economic relationship can make a direct contribution to enhancing the quality of life of over two-and-half-billion people residing in the region.

Given its strategic location, Nepal could play a dynamic role as an economic corridor. Without indulging in the verbal acrobatics of ‘trilateral cooperation’ or ‘triangular engagement’, it is certain that it would be for the benefit of all the three countries (Nepal, India and China) if there were increased physical connectivity and economic cooperation among them.

The formation of the EPG is a promising development. It is delightful to note that its concept was conceived and agreed upon for the first time during my official visit to India in 2011, and that it is now making progress. I appreciate the cautious and wise steps taken by the committee, which held its second meeting just a couple of weeks ago in New Delhi. I feel that the EPG should not only focus on repairing the existing anomalies in Nepal-India treaties, but must also display visionary insights in order to address the needs and aspirations of the 21st century. 

We in Nepal have envisioned a fast-track development approach to make the nation prosperous within the shortest possible time frame. In this context, we expect continued cooperation from our neighbours, which have already reached a certain height of success. We do not want to be left behind in the development drive; we want to march together with them, particularly India. In this pursuit, we need to take Nepal-India relations to a newer height. The new paradigm shift in our relationship would be to move towards a development-centric security policy from the traditional military one. Shared prosperity would be the best guarantee for mutual security and a cordial Nepal-India relationship. 

 

- Bhattarai is a former prime minister 

Published: 26-10-2016 08:19

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