Friday, September 25, 2015

Indo-Nepal friction: look at the bush beyond the tree




At such a delicate juncture in history in which Nepal is trying to leave behind the legacy of violent armed struggle through peaceful constitutionalism, the help and goodwill of either of the giant neighbors is crucial. A person venting the charged emotions on social media can afford to ignore this but the people really leading the country cannot. For the Indian side, a robust friendship with Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh has been so far contrasted with the prickly relationship with Pakistan. Spoiled relationship with Nepal will do her no good.
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Both India and Nepal have to do a lot of introspection and search for ways of economic betterment so that the jingoism, communalism and religious/racial bigotry would not have to be used to make up for the failure in  the economic front.




After a series of disastrous diplomatic moves regarding Nepal's constitution promulgation, Indian leadership seems to be taking stock of the damage the fiasco has done to India's relationship with Nepal now. After a belated clarification by the Indian ambassador to Kathmandu that the so called seven point suggestion for amendment of Nepal's constitution--first carried by Indian daily The Indian Express and then widely shared in Nepal--was never prepared by India, a constructive engagement between the two neighbors should now start in earnest.

The sheer brazenness of such a proposal had suddenly multiplied the rage towards India's 'interventionism' in Nepal. With the ambassador's clarifications, there are now three explanations as to how the fateful report in the Express originated: 1) South Block was indeed brazen enough to do that kind of homework and leak it to the media, but resorted to prudence after the backlash, 2) the draft was prepared by the so called 'mandarins and apparatchiks' at the ministry and leaked without notice of the politicians and 3) the imagination of the journalist/reporter was fertile enough to prepare such an imaginary draft.

Whatever the origin, the damage is already done. For a neighbor to first merely 'take notice' of promulgation of 'a constitution' in Nepal and then to suggest a pointed amendment within a day or two of promulgation, there was no way it would do any good to any side including the Indian government, the Nepali government and the agitating parties in Nepal.

That India has bungled in its response to Nepal's new constitution is now more or less established with international media also covering the backlash against the Indian diplomatic moves in the context of promulgation of constitution in Nepal. That, though, does not in any way justify the ineptitude and failure of Nepal's leadership to deal prudently with the agitating parties in the country.

This brings us to the important part of the narrative on Indo-Nepal relationship that has been drowned out amid the charged arguments and counterarguments: the tie between two unequal neighbors goes way beyond this episode of bickering. At least a temporary damage to the relationship has already been done but both the sides should now work to avoid making it permanent.

Reinvigorating Nepal's fragile economy, thanks to decades of bad governance, is going to be a monumental challenge for the leaders in the country even if the current spell of instability and violence is tamed soon. The risks to the economy can be immense and insurmountable if the strife in the fertile Southern part of the country goes into chronicity. Hyper-nationalist rhetoric may give a temporary boost to people's ego bruised by inconsiderate steps from the neighboring government but that does nothing to change things in ground for the better especially when it comes to economy.

At such a delicate juncture in history in which Nepal is trying to leave behind the legacy of violent armed struggle through peaceful constitutionalism, the help and goodwill of either of the giant neighbors is crucial. A person venting the charged emotions on social media can afford to ignore this but the people really leading the country cannot do so.

For the Indian side, a robust friendship with Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh has been so far contrasted with the prickly relationship with Pakistan. Given Nepal's geographical location between herself and China, the stakes are even higher for India at a time when both the powers jostle for prominence in the region and the world.

For Narendra Modi's government in India, friction with one more neighbor amid already disappointing engagement with Pakistan is altogether undesirable. Already caught between the need to deliver in terms of lasting reforms and the need to indulge in hopelessly populist measures to win elections, the mountain of challenge in front of Modi is ways bigger than that in front of Kathmandu politicians. Disappointing a 1.3 billion strong population is a dangerous thing to accomplish in a democracy and many analyst are warning that Modi is on the verge of doing just that.

Only a smooth relationship with neighbors with thriving trade and other ties would help Mr. Modi to concentrate on his reform and development agenda, of course, assuming that they'll get priority over hindutva agenda.

The win-win situation for both the sides now would be the one in which: 1) politicians in Kathmandu become more accommodating and sensitive towards the disgruntled parties in the country including those from the Terai-Madhesh so that the vicious ongoing rift between 'Pahadi' and 'Madheshi/Tharu' people loses its combative edge, a more constructive discourse becomes possible and the tension in the country defuses making a genuine reconciliation possible, 2) India stops overt gestures of highhandedness like the terse MEA statements but keeps urging Nepal to accommodate all sides, and more importantly, uses its leverage silently to nudge the disgruntled parties and groups to sit for dialogue with the Nepal government and 3) the agitating parties stop adding kerosene to fire by threatening a blockade and instead, engage in serious negotiation with the Nepali state.

In the longer run, the only win-win situation is one in which India prospers along with its neighbors and not leaving behind them in poverty and strife. If continued strife, along with resulting toll on the economy, is the biggest threat to Nepal, a failure to transform the economy and achieve sustained growth is the same for India.

This is what I wrote in December 2013, long before Modi was elected as Indian prime minister, in Asia Times Online:
Moreover, what is conveniently forgotten about the 2002 Gujarat violence in discourses today is that, for Modi's brand of politics, 2002 was not a point of time when things went out of hand. This was beginning of an era of a massive social engineering that molded the entire population into a particular shape, dismantling the tolerant and pluralistic fabric of the society. 
If anything goes awry in future and a Modi-led BJP exchanges the apparently harmless developmental agenda with a less wholesome but potentially efficient alternative of another attempt at such social engineering, then that is likely to threaten the pluralist and secular fabric of the Indian state itself.
I believe, Modi has done little to dispel this kind of fears during the period of more than a year in his tenure.

I think both India and Nepal have to do a lot of introspection and search for ways of economic betterment so that the jingoism, communalism and religious/racial bigotry would not have to be used to make up for the failure in  the economic front.

Jiwan Kshetry is a freelance writer and blogs regularly at South Asia and Beyond

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