Coercion Against 'Recalcitrant' Nepal Will Be Counterproductive
The importance of non-interference in Nepal's affairs
With Kathmandu rather truculently challenging New Delhi, Indian commentators are suggesting coercive action. But coercion will be highly counter-productive in the changed domestic and geo-political context, with China emerging as decisive factor not only in Nepal but in the entire South Asian region.
The more productive strategy will be the adoption of a policy of non-interference in Nepal’s internal affairs, respecting its sovereignty over its domestic and foreign affairs, so that Nepal’s relations with India are based on respect rather than fear. It is the apprehension of Indian hegemony which is forcing Nepal to embrace China.
Indian policy makers should realize that it is India’s punitive action of supporting the debilitating economic blockade in 2015 which lies at the root of the current anti-Indian feeling in Nepal.
Come 2018, Nepal is no longer a helpless victim of Indian hegemony as China is waiting in the wings to bankroll it and provide vital technical and military assistance. With China opening up seven ports to Nepal this month, the landlocked country need no longer feel strangulated by India as it did during the blockade.
The simplistic theory of the voteries of Hindutva that Hinduism alone is enough to keep Nepal in the Indian sphere of influence has been disproved time and again. And yet, few Indians seem to realize that religious and cultural affinities are of no consequence in relations between sovereign countries.
In international relations, the notion of national sovereignty of territorial States is more powerful and more enduring than religious, linguistic or ethnic ties. If New Delhi finds itself at odds with Kathmandu ever so often, it is because it has consistently failed to realize the importance of sovereignty for the Nepalese.
Seventy years after the end of the end of the Indian Empire, New Delhi still considers itself the “Raj’s” successor, demanding obeisance from its neighbors, who were earlier parts of British India or were buffer States like Nepal and Bhutan.
However, there is another side to the story which is also relevant. While New Delhi’s “divine right” to intervene in the internal affairs of the neighbors is disliked, squabbling politicians in the neighboring countries have often cynically used India to advance their partisan interests at the expense of their nation’s sovereignty. And this comes in handy to Delhi’s exploitative Mandarins. India’s partisanship in Nepal’s politics in fact ensures that there is always an anti-Indian lobby there.
However, changes are happening in Nepal. The emergence of the K.P.Oli-Prachanda alliance has enabled Nepal to present a united nationalist front against India.
And the emergence of China as an alternative power, which can be utilized when India becomes overbearing, has been a catalytic agent in Nepal’s changing outlook.
To New Delhi’s discomfiture, the neighbors find China to be a totally different kettle of fish. Beijing does not interfere in internal affairs (whether it is domestic or foreign affairs) but only gives an attractive alternative, namely, ample funds for infrastructural development which the still under-developed South Asian countries are hankering for.
In sharp contrast to India, China eschews Big Brotherly and condescending advice. Decisions on projects are left to the host governments. Beijing only funds and executes them, and that, efficiently and quickly in ways Indians are not known to do.
Leveraging its growing ties with China, the Nepalese government has snubbed India quite brazenly.
Immediately after the Fourth BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu, in which Narendra Modi was a key participant, Nepal struck a deal with China which generously gave access to seven of its ports. China has agreed to let Nepal use Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang open seaports, and Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse dry ports for trading with third countries
“The deal also includes future road and rail connections between Nepal and China. And given the speed with which the Chinese execute their projects, the envisaged connectivity will see the light of day soon,” says Sputniknews.
“Nepalese traders can gain access to the Chinese side after producing an electronic invoice. This is in sharp contrast to the current business norms applied while trading through Indian ports, wherein they have to produce the original invoice.
"The transit protocol does not specify paths, allowing Nepal to choose viable routes; additional ports and dry ports can be added without amending the treaty, and Nepali trucks plates may go all the way to Shigatse (Xigatse) railhead to pick up goods. It is now time to make the roadways ready to link Nepal to Shigatse, only then can we say ‘bye bye blockade’ forever!” said leading Nepalese commentator Kanak Mani Dixit.
The Sino-Nepalese protocol is expected to be implemented in the next one month.
No To BIMSTEC Military Exercise
Nepal followed up the transit pact with China by deciding to attend the BIMTEC military exercise on tackling urban terrorism this month only an “observer” not as a “participant.”
Prime Minister Oli had apparently come under political pressure not to allow Nepal be part of an India-dominated military alliance, especially when the primary mandate of BIMSTEC is not to tackle terrorism but to promote international connectivity and infrastructural development.
The military exercise had also not got the formal sanction of the Fourth BIMSTEC summit in August, though cooperation in combating urban terrorism was mentioned in the Kathmandu Declaration.
Nepal also wanted to tell India that it does not want BIMSTEC to replace SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), a body in which India’s neighbors feel comfortable and India feels threatened.
Prime Minister K.P.Oli conveyed this through his coalition partner Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda. In a talk at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi recently, Prachanda said that Nepal is not for the reduction of SAARC into a non-entity.
Through a series of actions since the formation of SAARC in the 1980s, India has downgraded it to near nullity, using Pakistan’s cross border terrorist activities as an excuse. India has put the next SAARC summit in Islamabad in question because of its unending conflict with Pakistan.
Nepal is all for BIMSTEC but it wants it to be primarily an economic union and not a military of a strategic one to counter this or that country. In contrast, India is primarily interested in using BIMSTEC (and other organizations) to counter the influence of Pakistan and China strategically and militarily.
India’s tendency to use regional cooperation bodies to push its regional geo-political agenda is all too apparent to its neighbors and they are resisting it in their own way. They may sign agreements but they deliberately drag their feet on implementation. They have also opted out of agreements. And to Delhi’s chagrin, they explore alternatives to India.
Need For Policy Audit
It would therefore be in New Delhi’s interest to do an audit of its foreign policy relating to the region. It must come to terms with the harsh reality of its all round unpopularity. As Nehru said, Indians should “stop living in a world of their own creation”; and devise strategies to remedy the situation.
The first step is to cease interfering in the internal affairs of the neighbors. They should be allowed to choose their domestic and foreign policies – something that China has been doing and winning goodwill in the region in the region. In the eyes of India’s neighbors, India is the hegemon, not China. India is seen as an interfering power while China is not. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which India sees as a threat to the sovereignty of the client countries, is not seen as such by China’s clients.
2015 Economic Blockade
India’s current unpopularity in Nepal and the latter’s lurch towards China are largely is due to the economic blockade of Sepember-October 2015 which the Modi government indirectly supported.
The blockade was organized by the Madhesis or the people of Indian origin in Nepal over an internal political issue. Indian supplies were not sent to Nepal on the plea that there was a blockade. Delhi was defiantly silent on the fact that the blockade was the handiwork of ethnic Indians and pro-India parties in Nepal with Indian blessing.
The blockade hit all sections of Nepalese society, but particularly the 200,000 families hit by the devastating earthquake which took place earlier in 2015.
That shortsighted Indian policy predictably opened the doors to China which was waiting in the wings to fund infrastructure projects under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A Sino-Nepalese trade and transit agreement was mooted when the pro-Indian Nepali Congress lost power to pro-China K.P.Oli in October 2015. Nepal formally jointed the BRI in 2017.
It is therefore time India became neutral vis-a-vis Nepal’s domestic and foreign policies. The layoff will, over time, enable Nepal to come out of the fear of Indian hegemony.
New Delhi would be well advised to go back to Nehru’s “Panchsheel” or the five principles of peaceful coexistence in which “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs” was included.
The Nepalese leader Prachanda reminded the Indian ruling elite about Panchsheel in his talk at the Indian Council of World Affairs recently.
Prachanda said: "Respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs help buttress trust which is absolutely essential to governing a friendly relationship. Let me tell you frankly: small neighbors have some sensitivities that need to be understood and respected."