There has been a steady erosion of goodwill for India in Nepal despite extending such huge developmental support, interactions through an open border, and absorbing the major shocks of conflicts there. The present trust deficit has its origin in Nepalese King Mahendra’s dissolution of the 19-month-old first democratically elected government of BP Koirala in December 1960. The king, in his astute attempt to insulate India from Nepalese affairs, took five key decisions.
First, in pursuance of his policy of ‘equidistance’ between India and China, he invited China, for the first time, in 1967 to build the Kathmandu-Kodari Highway, connecting China with Nepal. India had by then built the Tribhuvan Highway, connecting Kathmandu with India.
Second, he devised the East West Highway (Mahendra Rajmarg) to link two extremely difficult geographical flanks of Nepal.
Third, he encouraged the Paharis to settle in the Terai to counterbalance the Madhesis, who are of Indian origin, and selectively patronised the Madhesis and ethnic groups in the name of representation.
Fourth, despite the pegging of the Nepali rupiah with the Indian currency, which protected the Nepali rupiah from huge volatility, the use of the Nepalese currency in all parts of Nepal was made compulsory.
And finally, the redrafting of the constitution in 1962, which started the panchayat-based regime, not only swayed the masses but consolidated the religious importance of the monarchy.
The gains for the monarchy were immense. One of those was the death knell of the Indian variety of democracy. An anti-Indian feeling became the core of Nepalese nationalism. Against the backdrop of Sikkim’s merger with India, King Birendra added a new dimension by declaring Nepal as a “Zone of Peace” in 1975. By the late 1980s, India’s share in Nepal’s trade had come down to 22% from 98% in the 1960s. Nepal consciously diversified and departed from the 30-year-old bilateralism. It made multilateral assistance overwhelmingly dominant.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014 and the instant and significant earthquake relief that India gave to the country generated unprecedented support and goodwill for India. However, bilateral relations soured again in the aftermath of what the Nepalese called “economic blockade” by India, the first after 1988-89. Full-throated anti-Indian feelings once again erupted. India was forthright and clear about its stand on the constitution in Nepal. It wanted the new constitution to accommodate the aspirations of the people of Madhesh, ethnic groups, the Dalits and other minorities, who got a raw deal. In fact, the Maoist movement was heavily based on these constituencies. The highly upper caste-driven and Kathmandu-centric Nepalese political economy and governance did not let it happen. This hardened India’s attitude because this could even lead to a more serious Maoist-like uprising in Nepal.
However, India-Nepal relations are intertwined with their geography, history, politics, natural resources, culture and human security. The contexts and perspectives are changing fast. India and Nepal must deploy non-conventional approaches to transform their relations. A new generation of policymakers, civil society stakeholders and a young critical mass are emerging fast. They want to see things happening, grab every growth-led opportunity in India, and cut down on red tape.
After the monarchy was abolished and the first constituent assembly was elected in 2008, Nepal has had eight prime ministers. This is likely to continue till a new generation of inclusive leadership takes over. Against this backdrop of protracted political instability, China has started meddling in Nepal, making inroads into the country and using the One Belt One Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as critical instruments. Adverse cross-border impacts of climate change like the Kosi floods in Bihar and the Bhoteykoshi deluge on the Chinese side and harnessing natural resources for third-country markets require a new set of institutions and deft handling. When the proposed seven states emerge in Nepal’s federal structure, their cross-border implications vis-à-vis evolving cooperative federalism in India will inject a more complex dimension.
All these provide opportunities to India to design a new Himalayan policy that transforms the colonial legacy into a grand vision to surmount the mountains and penetrate Central and South-East Asia through land routes. This calls for a new orientation to its strategic and development participation. Nepal has to be engaged more extensively, using far-reaching liberal and non-traditional instruments like the common market strategy. Under this, besides a common customs policy, Nepalese traders and investors could access any global market through India. And macro-economic policies will remain harmonised and institutions integrated.
If projects like Pancheswar happen in time, Nepal could sell its electricity anywhere, using the extensive Indian power grids. Besides the modern physical infrastructure, it is in India’s interests to set up institutions that would serve Nepal’s polity, governance, economy and, more crucially, social and ecological requirements. It is through India-Nepal borderlands that the former quietly absorbed millions of displaced people during the Maoist war. It can never be equated with the northern frontiers. The Chinese have not taken a single Nepali refugee and also ensured that no Tibetan refugees are entertained in Nepal. Therefore, demanding a review of the open border looks academic if the cost of closing down the borders is scientifically, historically and realistically calculated by Nepal.
For all these to happen, incremental moves and the ‘I decide’ attitude of the Indian bureaucracy should be put behind. New-generation agreements and treaties have to be signed to make Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh an integral part of India’s Act East policy.
Mahendra P Lama is professor at the School of International Studies, JNU, and member of the Eminent Persons Group set up by the governments of Nepal and India in 2016
The views expressed are personal