India’s policy must respond to Changing Aspirations and Dynamics within Nepal

Image credit: Civilsdaily

 Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 19 July 2019   

The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership was quick to underline the importance of the South Asian neighborhood since it came to power for the first time in 2014. The government ever since believes that a ‘neighborhood first’ policy is key to realize the larger Indian objective of rising beyond the region. This is also clearly evident in the Indian government’s approach to foreign policy currently since Prime Minister Modi started leading the nation for the second term. It is fresh in memory that during Prime Minister Modi’s first term and quite in line with ‘neighborhood first’ policy framework, New Delhi not only invited the leaders of the South Asian countries to Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony, he started his foreign visits with state visits in the neighborhood – Bhutan on 15-16 June, 2014 followed by Nepal on 3-4 August in the same year. While it is germane that India must have a robust neighborhood policy as neighbors are given instead of being chosen, its policy must be informed by the changes occurring in the societies and politics in the neighborhood and needs to be flexible enough to incorporate such changes. The social and political classes within Nepal are rewriting the fate of their country by transforming and overcoming the deep-seated psychology of being small and land-locked. Diversification of foreign relations and opening up of opportunities of higher studies at various places other than India are changing educated class’s perception about India’s interaction with their country. They are poised to view India’s attempts at influencing Nepalese politics as bullying of a hegemonic power. There are experts in Kathmandu who argue that India as a big power as well as a neighbor must not view Nepal as a small India-locked country rather New Delhi needs to notice how the Himalayan country has been helpful in combating cross-country organized crime, the drug trade, human trafficking and prohibiting the Nepali soil to various separatist organizations that concerned India.  

Nepal and India’s Security Concerns

India’s neighborhood policy has been shaped by security concerns emanating from uncertain security atmospherics in the South Asian region precipitated by recent surge in Chinese economic as well as strategic presence largely because of its neighbors’ preference for and attraction toward Beijing’s rising economic and military influence. India, which shares its land or maritime border with other countries of South Asia either in the Himalayas or in the Indian Ocean, has historically considered the South Asian region as its sphere of influence to maintain its security against external influence. New Delhi considered small South Asian countries such as Nepal vulnerable to external pressures due to their incapacity to provide for their own security. Keeping this in mind, India’s first Prime Minister Nehru retained the protectorate arrangements of British India in the Himalayas as a legacy of and successor to the imperial rule. The three bilateral agreements that Nehru signed with Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal during 1949-50 retained the hegemonic spirit of the agreements concluded by the former British Indian administration to secure its imperial rule. India and Nepal not only shared social and cultural ties historically, but more importantly, an open border allowing seamless movement of people to further such ties. However, Nepal often viewed India’s policy as an encroachment into its internal affairs which bound it with India through a web of asymmetrical relationship and on the other side, India believed allowing the small country-sandwiched between two great powers (India and China)- much leeway to conduct policy would enhance Chinese influence. India also continued to pour in substantial amount of aid to keep Nepal within its sphere of influence.     

India and Nepal cooperated on security issues with an objective to bolster each other’s security. Sources of insecurity to India’s territorial integrity stemmed from insurgency in the border areas apart from continued threat of Chinese influence. Aside from training Nepalese soldiers every year, India played a part in training and equipping Nepali police. Both countries established security mechanisms like Nepal-India Bilateral Consultative Group on Security Issues. India has special Gurkha regiments comprising soldiers recruited from Nepal within its armed forces to bolster security ties between the two countries.

India made concerted efforts at influencing domestic politics within Nepal in order to keep it within its orbit of influence so that it could preserve its security. Historically, New Delhi supported the institution of Monarchy, then redirected its support to democratic forces and was allegedly involved in undermining the rise of communist parties. New Delhi was witnessed using economic blockade as a pressure tactic to bring in political influence in Kathmandu which also contributed to souring of bilateral relations in 1989-90 and towards the end of 2015.

New Delhi claimed that the new Constitution of Nepal was allegedly framed in way to discriminate against Madheshi population who shared ethnic identity with similar groups in India and therefore it sought changes in the constitutional provisions to accommodate interests and rights of Madhesis. However, such claims could not dispel distrust in Kathmandu which was built upon Nepalese suspicions about India’s hegemonic intentions.

Nepal’s desire for independence

The communist leadership of Nepal extended warm welcome to Indian Prime Minister Modi on his visit to Nepal in May 2018 and indicated its readiness to reset ties with India after a phase of lows in bilateral relations precipitated by alleged political interference and unofficial economic blockade by India. On the other side, KP Oli (Khadga Prasad Oli) government’s decision that the Nepalese Army would not participate in the first ever joint military exercise of BIMSTEC towards the end of 2018 as well as its willingness to participate in a joint military exercise with China (12-day long joint military exercise with China termed as Sagarmatha Friendship-2) and continued attempts at lessening Nepal’s economic dependence on India by securing port and road facilities in China unambiguously pointed to the country’s desire to balance China against India to secure independence. Under Prime Minister KP Oli’s leadership, Nepal finalized the protocol of Transit and Transport Agreement (TTA) with China in Kathmandu with an objective to allow Nepal access to four Chinese ports in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang including access to dry ports and roads facilities intended to diminish Kathmandu’s trade dependence on New Delhi.

Growing China-Nepal relations under ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and enhanced Chinese investment in connectivity and infrastructure projects to inter-link both countries in several sectors indicated India’s waning influence in Nepal as India due to its suitable location vis-à-vis Nepal (which led experts to consider Nepal as more India-locked than land-locked) could have contributed to quality transportation system, infrastructure and energy projects with lesser investment compared to China.

India, being the biggest power in South Asia, has been sought to handle certain internal problems faced by the small neighbors. However, New Delhi failed to meet their expectations. For instance, Nepalese requests for assisting in the repartition of Bhutanese refugees which has been of crucial importance to Kathmandu has not been effectively dealt with by India. While Nepal- a landlocked mountainous country lacking capital and technology needed large dams and hydro-power in order to industrialize and develop, India could not fulfill Nepalese expectations of developing river water resources to produce required hydro-power to meet the needs of its growing economy. The continuing perception that the water agreements concluded with India were not advantageous to the country and India’s failure to deliver on its commitments in time led to Nepalese distrust of India’s engagement and led to uncertainty over implementing the Mahakali Treaty and commencing the construction of Pancheswar dam project under the Treaty. India constructed the Sarada barrage on Mahakali River whereas many people in Nepal considered the treaty unfair due to allocation of less amount of water to the country. Similarly, India-financed projects such as the agreements to build Kosi barrage in 1954 and Gandak Barrage in 1959 were perceived partial and disadvantageous to Nepal. Nepal has not only been seeking Chinese finance and collaboration to develop its water resources, recent years have witnessed graphical rise in Nepal’s economic ties with China. India’s investment in Nepal pales in comparison to China which turns out to be Nepal’s biggest foreign investor.

Even while New Delhi extended humanitarian assistance soon after an earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, such non-military and assistive role instead of dispelling hegemonic perception about India drew criticisms from several quarters in Nepal because the Indian media was alleged to be insensitive and biased in its coverage of the disaster. Indicating the country’s desire to overcome the limitations imposed by India-locked geography which enhanced the country’s dependence on New Delhi, Prime Minister Oli not only signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China to build a strategic railway link connecting Tibet with Kathmandu through the Himalayan terrain, there were indications as well that China aimed at laying down “cross-Himalayan connectivity network” – a mega inter-linking project in the areas of aviation, trading ports, highways and telecommunications. Some experts believed Beijing’s support in critical areas such as providing oil not only aimed at ending India’s monopoly over Nepal’s fuel imports, it helped China forge strategic relationship with Kathmandu.  

India needs to change its tack

India has sub-regional initiatives such as Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal initiative which could be an alternative to China’s BRI. It has also connectivity agreements such as building rail connectivity between Kathmandu in Nepal and Raxaul in India, establishing inland water connectivity for movement of people, and laying down a petroleum products pipeline from Motihari in India to Amlekhgunj in Nepal. However, India has relied more on aid and extending lines of credit to maintain its influence in Nepal rather than contributing to development of infrastructure through continued engagement and delivering the targets in time. India’s engagement in Nepal appears to be reactive rather than pro-active.

Prime Minister Modi relied on soft power to present a positive image of India to the people of Nepal, by visiting places underlining cultural commonalities between both countries such as Janakpur where Hindu god Rama’s wife Sita was born. He also focused on bilateral economic cooperation by laying the foundation for the Arun III 900 MW hydroelectricity project. He not only paid tributes to Nepal’s election process held under the provisions of the 2015 constitution,  resetting the fraying relationship with Nepal after the communist government was formed Prime Minister Modi said: “Nepal has covered a long journey from (civil) war to peace…. You have reached the base camp of Mount Everest and the main climb is yet to be done. As the Sherpas help mountaineers to reach the top of the Everest, India is ready to help Nepal like a Sherpa”. The two prime ministers launched a bus service between Janakpur in Nepal and Ayodhya in India – two historical places with common cultural connection.

Nepal as a developing economy would need investment in key areas of its growth such as agriculture, manufacturing, IT and tourism. India must focus on the areas and assist Nepal in its development. India’s aid to the country has surged significantly but Nepal needs more investment, economic cooperation and timely completion of bilateral projects. New Delhi must aim at changing the perception that the educated youth in Nepal hold about India. It needs to review the bilateral agreements to generate a sense of justice and fairness among the people of Nepal. New Delhi can correct the trade imbalance with the Himalayan country only by pouring more investment and assisting it in the areas of manufacture. Nepal’s emergence as a ‘Democratic Republic’ which has injected relative stability to the country arising out of decades of political as well as ideological morass must be viewed by India as an opportunity to capitalize on people-to-people contacts facilitated by open border, suitable geographic location and historical and cultural ties (the factors that place India in an advantageous position compared to China) that exist between the two countries predominantly populated by Hindus. India’s existing soft-power presence in Nepal must be balanced and enhanced by hard power of investment and cooperation in target areas which would contribute to Nepal’s growth. Even while New Delhi has legitimate security interests in the neighborhood to defend its territorial integrity from adverse political and military developments in the region due to common geographical borders in the Himalayas and Indian Ocean, it must be sensitive to the changing mood and aspirations among social and political classes within Nepal in order to have a nuanced and flexible policy.