New Delhi has a phalanx of experts observing the neighbours—Nepal-watchers, Bangladesh-watchers etc—and so the question, with all this ogling, why does India walk so regularly into the cross-border quicksand? One reason MEA-NSA-PMO get it wrong so often must be that the think-tanks and commentariat by and large form a fawning, ‘force-multiplying’ circle of applause.
For instance, there was uncompounded glee in the New Delhi papers last month when the outgoing government of PM Sher Bahadur Deuba cancelled a reservoir project (Budhi Gandaki) with China’s Gezhouba Group. But, utter silence prevailed a week later when another equally large project (West Seti) went to the China Three Gorges Corporation!
It comes off as all too synchronised. Rather than the robust course of challenging South Block when necessary, the commentators sing in harmony, following the line set by the authorities on neighbourhood relations. Which is why there’s no reason for surprise when New Delhi media editorials are read in Kathmandu as reflecting the official Indian position.
This is coupled with a head-in-the-sand attitude, as exemplified in a lead editorial of a New Delhi paper published on Tuesday after the victory of the Left alliance (CPN-UML and Maoist). The writer bemoaned Kathmandu’s China pivot, but failed to mention that this tilt was brought forward at least a decade by the economic blockade of 2016, which was also a key factor in the routing of the centrist Nepali Congress party in the elections. The best the editorialist could do was offer a contorted reference to “what was seen as India’s interference in internal Nepali politics when it seemingly imposed a blockade.” The writer further fretted at “the possibility of China supplying Nepal with petroleum products, which now come exclusively from India”. Meaning, how sad that New Delhi can no longer put on the squeeze.
Then this: “Given the lakhs of Nepalis who work in India, (Nepal) has a stake in maintaining good relations with New Delhi.” If it were not all so sloppy, that would be construed as blackmail.
For decades, Kathmandu was protected from Indian apparatchiks because the leaders had a direct line to the national leadership, for having participated in the Indian Independence struggle. The last of that generation departed with the passing of Girija Prasad Koirala in 2008, and the new lot of Kathmandu leaders promptly empowered even junior diplomats at the Lainchaur Embassy as little viceroys. Inevitably, leaders learnt to deal with the imperious envoys, smiling meekly and saying ‘Haanji, haanji’ while going ahead to do their own thing. This is how the new Constitution was promulgated in September 2015 even as foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, PM Modi’s special envoy, landed at the last minute to urge postponement. That was why an infuriated New Delhi clamped the blockade.
Kathmandu has also been timid in raising unresolved border matters, and it took the Doklam crisis to make the New Delhi think-tanks take notice of the other ‘trijunction’. On the upper reaches of the Mahakali River dividing Nepal and Uttarakhand lies the Lipu Lek pass with China/Tibet to the north. There are not many border disputes left between India and Nepal, but Lipu Lekh (and Kalapani further downstream) will remain a canker unless Kathmandu girds up the courage to raise the matter, and New Delhi is respectful in agreeing to talks. The matter of the 1950 Treaty as well as the open Nepal-India border is presently being discussed by a bilateral eminent persons’ group. It is not known if the members have taken up Lipu Lekh/Kalapani.
Beijing’s attitude towards Nepal has indeed shifted dramatically, from benign friendship to proactive outreach, with the blockade as accelerator. The game-changer in all this will be the arrival of the Chinese railway network at a border point northwest of Kathmandu Valley in 2020. There is some historicity being revived here, for Nepal was connected to Tibet by trade and extra-territoriality till the mercantilist rise of the East India Company. The final cut-off followed the Younghusband Mission to Tibet in 1904, which diverted all trade away to Kalimpong and Calcutta. At long last, the national economy is converting from ‘India-locked’ to ‘land-locked’ status. But as Beijing comes on strong in Nepal, there is no doubt of the need for ‘How to Deal with China’ instructions from neighbours Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Nepal is currently the chair of SAARC, and Kathmandu hosts the SAARC Secretariat. The Modi government has decided it cannot play ball with Pakistan, and has used its influence to place SAARC in a coma for three years now. Nepal’s leaders, thoroughly intimidated by Modi, have been unwilling to use their good offices to revive the organisation, whose goals are regional cooperation for overall socio-economic uplift. As with other capitals so in Kathmandu, no one has come forward to bell the cat. Indefinite stasis serves no purpose at all: the needs it was set up to cater to are real.
(The author was the founder of the Himal Southasian magazine)