From outer space it is possible to see the well-lit fence that separates India from Pakistan, but not the boundary with landlocked Nepal. As far as India’s northern neighbour is concerned, Robert Frost’s oft-repeated advice — Good fences make good neighbours — definitely does not apply. The line that separates India and Nepal may seem like an area of darkness, but the relationship between the two has been marked with open borders and large-heartedness that has kept the Nepalese happy and mobile — 3 million of them live and work in India without visas or work permits.
This special relationship forged in 1950, save for a few hiccups, served both countries well till the latest messy spat over Nepal’s freshly minted federal constitution. The showdown, which has spiralled out of control, has left in tatters Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much vaunted neighbourhood policy.
From cosy to dodgy In the last one month, the relationship has sunk so low that the Nepalese envoy in New York complained to the UN over the way India imposed an informal blockade. Modi and his foreign policy advisors believed the Himalayan country was a pushover and it would do exactly what New Delhi wanted. The cockiness stemming from Modi’s two well choreographed trips to Nepal, which turned out to be roaring successes: he offered a $1 billion credit line and tried to show how Nepal was tied to India through the umbilical cord of Hindu religion and tradition.
The first hint that something had touched a raw nerve came when India’s relief effort after amonster earthquake hit Nepal was resented for the arrogant manner in which the Indian media conducted itself. Since then the relationship had been going downhill.
The situation finally spun out of control over Nepal’s new federal constitution. For eight long years after the overthrow of the monarchy and the laying down of arms by the Maoists, Nepal had been busy trying to put together an inclusive constitution that would meet the aspirations of its hard-pressed, civil war-racked, poverty-stricken people. Finally last month when its 601-member parliament accepted the newly drafted constitution, there was a howl of protest not just from a section of its ethnically diverse population comprising Madhes and Tharus, but also from New Delhi.
New Delhi’s objections First, it appeared that the Indian government was riled over Kathmandu’s blunt refusal to back off from its decision to declare itself a secular country as well as accommodate the demands of the noisy people of the plains — the Madhes — for a separate province. So desperate was India to prevent the adoption of the constitution that it rushed its foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly sealed the final draft of the new constitution and President Ram Baran Yadav was to promulgate it later at a separate function. India wanted the promulgation of the constitution delayed.
This was scandalous! You don’t go to your neighbour’s house and lay down the rules by which he or she should run affairs. India did precisely this and incurred the wrath of the restive Nepalese who began to tweet furiously with twitter handles such as #BackoffIndia trending for days together.
The Modi government was unfazed by how its undiplomatic conduct was perceived in Kathmandu and issued a curt response to the promulgation of the constitution saying that it “took notice” of the development, but talked about the violence in the Nepal plains and the imperative of accommodating communities that live there.
Lying alongside Bihar, the Madhesis have wanted a separate state, but after their electoral loss in 2013, they lost influence in Nepal’s parliament. It was due to this reason that their claim was ignored. So divided was their leadership that many of them supported the new constitution. The truth, though, is that a section of Madhesis are deeply suspicious of the people living in Pahad (hill) and fear that they would not share power with them.
Contrarily, the people living in the hills feel that the Madhesis are stirring up trouble at the behest of New Delhi. The Madhesi leadership addressing press conferences and leading protest against Kathmandu is a discredited lot in the eyes of Kathmandu due to its proximity to Indian external intelligence agencies. In Nepal, India is perceived to be a powerful player that can order and reorder the Himalayan state’s politics.
Keeping this in mind, Delhi had allegedly demanded that Kathmandu respond to its seven points that included political accommodation of Madheshis in the federation based on its population — they are in a majority. Also, the new constitution states that citizens by descent would be able to hold office of president, prime minister and so on. This threatens to exclude the Madhesis. Otherwise, the constitution is progressive in many ways and provides rights to LGBT communities.
Himalayan blunders There were some friendly voices coming out of the interim government of Suresh P Koirala that endeavoured to sort out ties with India, but that was before the election of the communist prime minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. He has strong views on the blockade facilitated by agitating Madhesis that has created a severe fuel crisis as well as scarcity of many essential goods. Oli, after being elected, underlined the “cracks in the relationship” with India. He is distrustful of New Delhi as he believes that it tried to prevent him from coming to power.
New Delhi seems clueless about how it will sort out it troubles with Nepal. Much against Modi’s wishes, there is a secular constitution and an atheist as prime minister who would not be averse to leveraging Nepal’s proximity with China to compel India to lift its blockade. Modi will have to do something quickly to rebuild bridges with our Himalayan neighbour rather than allowing some bureaucrats and diplomats to find ways of fixing an ally gone astray.
What Modi and his national security adviser, AK Duval, can do is turn the pages of history and find out how the previous government managed to soften the hostility displayed by the Maoist leadership of Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, towards India. If Modi’s heart is in the right place, winning back a natural ally is not going to be difficult. Otherwise, Nepal will be compelled to look towards China for relief and comfort.
The writer is the editor of Hard News