It doesn’t take 70 minutes to reach Nepal from Patna. But it took 17 years for an Indian Prime Minister to visit that country,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said while addressing an election rally in Saharsa in then poll-bound Bihar on August 18.
Optics plays a key role in diplomacy. And during his first visit to Nepal in August 2014, Modi had warmed more hearts in the land-locked Himalayan country wedged between India and China, than most would have imagined. “You should not think about the party but the country. Nepal needs a Constitution at the earliest,” Modi had told both President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala then, in a tone that was consistent with his neighbourhood first policy. Modi had also conveyed what India expected in the new Constitution. “I request all political stakeholders to draft the Constitution by early next year as committed through consensus, which will reflect aspirations of all communities, including Madhesis, Pahadis and Maoists...,” Modi had said.
There are any number of evidence, or instances that suggest that the Modi government was keen on bringing a new high in ties with Nepal. But a year on, New Delhi is battling a growing anti-India sentiment in Nepal, the reason for which is Indian empathy with the Madheshis and Tharus — communities that constitute 70% of the Terai population and who believe they got a raw deal in the new Constitution. For Nepali leaders, the way India has made its unhappiness known amounts to interference in the country’s internal affairs.
Nepal has accused India of enforcing a blockade on roads to Nepal through India. The blockade, they say, has stopped the flow of essential commodities to the country and brought untold miseries to the ordinary people. India has denied the charge. What remains unanswered, however, is why India failed to read the constitution-writing process right, and fell short in letting Kathmandu know its concerns in a more subtle, yet effective way. “This is a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Even before the new Constitution was passed, there were ample indications of what was to happen. We discussed this matter in the relevant Parliament committees too”, says CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who played an important role in the peace process of Nepal not so long ago.
It seems from many accounts, that the Indian embassy in Kathmandu had been sending messages to the external affairs ministry about the need for a diplomatic intervention to press for an all-inclusive Constitution. But New Delhi was undecided on how to go about it. Finally, foreign secretary S Jaishankar was sent to Nepal as a special envoy, 37 hours before the new Constitution was to be promulgated. It was too late in the day. Dashing the foreign secretary across also left many counter-questions in its wake.
“Our foreign secretary is an able diplomat, but he is no Nepal expert. A political envoy, or an all-party team of Indian political leaders with well-established contacts in Nepal should have been dispatched,” says Shashi Tharoor, a former minister and Congress MP who heads the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs. Alternately, why didn’t India, with a Constitution that has been amended over a hundred times, show patience and wait for Nepal to roll out the new Constitution and address some of the concerns in due course?
“A hurriedly promulgated Constitution that ignores the rights of about a third of Nepal’s citizens can hardly end political disarray without being amended,” says strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney. He argues that “The main issue currently wracking Nepal relates not to India but to a domestic political and constitutional crisis.”New Delhi, however, seems to have failed to understand the level of cohesion the new political dispensation in Nepal under Prime Minister KP Oli was marshalling against what they perceive as Indian interference. “What India missed to notice is that all major political parties in Nepal were united in their stand that India is trying to interfere in their internal affairs. The government should have seen this coming,” says MK Bhadrakumar former career diplomat and commentator.
Those who feel India is mounting unnecessary pressure on Nepal also point out that 105 of 116 Terai representatives have voted in favour of the Constitution.
The way out
Since October external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup has consistently emphasised that “officially or unofficially there has been no blockade by India.” But Nepal feel differently. “Blockade is a war-time word,” reminds former Indian ambassador to Nepal Deb Mukherjee, and adds, “the problem is on the Nepal side of the border owing to which supplies of essential commodities have been hit.”
Many feel, however, that India cannot simply wash off its hands by denying the blockade. “India has to dispel the feeling that there is a blockade. Any action that affects the common people of Nepal is not good for India. Neither is the feeling that India has been mounting such pressure on Nepal,” says Yechury. As Chellaney points out, Nepal is symbiotically tied to India, yet Nepali nationalism usually takes the form of India baiting. China, for its part, has in the past decade significantly enlarged its footprint in Nepal. Meanwhile, India continues to engage with the Madhesi leaders. There is a view that if left unattended, the problem of Madhesis and others can create an ethnic strife that would be akin to the Tamil minority issue in Sri Lanka. There is, however, one key difference. “Don’t forget whether it was MGR (MG Ramachandran) or Karunanidhi (Tamil Nadu leaders), they took a strident position on the Tamil nationalism, which played on the minds of the central government in Sri Lanka. But Bihar politicians are different in their attitude,” contends Bhadrakumar.
While India can take up the issue of the Madhesis, it needs to be more subtle in its approach. “In a neighbourhood which has both India and China, all small countries naturally follow a policy of hedging,” reminds Bhardrakumar. While Mukherjee feels that the way out of the current situation is that the two sides in Nepal talk to each other and find a solution to their problem, the challenge before the Indian government is how to address the sense of interference that has heightened the nationalistic rhetoric in Nepal. “Greater turmoil in the southern belt of Nepal will exacerbate India’s security challenges,” reminds Chellaney. In his address to the constituent assembly in Nepal in August 2014, Modi had said that “Nepal is a truly sovereign nation. We have always believed that it is not our job to interfere in what you do but to support you in the path you decide to take.”
It is now time for India to engage with Nepal in a way that assures them of the sincerity of his words.