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Handle with care: The big takeaway from Nepal fiasco

Indian-Nepalese border gate at Birgunj by Global Photographer - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

“Good fences make good neighbours,” said Robert Frost, and by this he meant that neighbourly success depends on respecting each other’s autonomy. This is especially true when those neighbours are as unequal as Nepal and India. The smaller neighbour is invariably suspicious, which is why Mexicans say, “Too close to America; too far from God.” India looms large in the Nepali imagination but Nepal hardly figures in India’s, except as a fantasy wonderland in the Himalayas. 

Ten months ago, Prime Minister Modi was a hero in Nepali eyes after his brilliant address to the nation’s lawmakers. India’s stock rose higher after its generous aid to the victims of the April earthquake. Today, the Indian flag is being burned on the streets of Nepal.The trouble began when Nepal announced a new constitution last month. Much awaited, it should have brought joy and celebration. Instead, it brought a revolt among Madhesis in the terai belt bordering India. Forty persons died. Although a third of Nepal, Madhesis have long felt discriminated by the hill elite. The new constitution marginalized them further as many of their districts were merged into the hill states. 

Madhesis retaliated by blocking trucks carrying food and fuel from India. As shortages developed and prices shot up, Nepal blamed India for its misery. India claimed innocence — it was a Madhesi blockade. But Nepalis accused India of siding with the Madhesis.True, India had championed their cause during the constitution-making process. A late frantic visit by Indian’s foreign secretary, Jaishankar, had strengthened the perception. Although of Indian origin, Madhesis were Nepalis, and Nepal felt that India had interfered in its domestic affairs. What if Pakistan became India’s adviser on how to treat India’s Muslims, or if Americans instructed us on how to manage Kashmir?

It is never easy for a big country to compel a small one to act in a certain way. It needs finesse and subtlety. India’s national interest is to have a friendly Nepal that does not fall into China’s hands. Diplomacy is the art of friendly persuasion — to align a neighbour’s interest with one’s own. This is where India’s diplomacy has failed. 

To their credit, both sides have realized their mistakes. Modi has welcomed Prime Minister K P Oli’s rise to power. Oli has appointed a dissident Madhesi as a deputy prime minister and has promised to sort out Madhesi grievances. 

But the anger, the pain of the blockade, and ill-will towards India remain. Our Nepali fiasco, ironically, comes on the heels of India’s triumph with another neighbour, Bangladesh, where a historic accord has recently erased a dispute as old as Kashmir while nudging the subcontinent towards a common market. 

There are other lessons in this fiasco. Nepal’s old politicians need to shed their distrust of India. With huge hydroelectric potential, Nepal should not be suffering from constant blackouts. Instead of buying power from India today, it should be selling it to India. But xenophobia prevents it from allowingIndian entrepreneurs to generate power. It could learn from Bhutan, which has achieved the highest GDP per capita in South Asia by selling power to India. In fact, by hitching its economy to India and China, the world’s fastest-growing economies, Nepal could become a Switzerland. 

Nepal’s old elite also needs to catch up with a new generation of aspiring, young Nepalis who will no longer put up with the old iniquities against minorities and women. Young Nepali women are deeply offended by an unequal provision in the constitution: children of Nepali men with foreign wives will get citizenship but not those of Nepali women married to a foreign husband. This law is aimed at the Madhesis. Manjushree Thapa, the Nepali author, puts it nicely: “Ruled by a deep-seated xenophobia, Hindu patriarchs fear that Indian men will marry Nepali women, and the children — born of Indian seed! — will populate Nepal. Nepal will then no longer be Nepali.” 

India should learn not to take Nepal for granted and respect its autonomy. Nepal would be happier if it shed its unwise fears. It should bear in mind that, unlike China, India has only created empires of the spirit, never of the sword. As Chinese scholar and diplomat Hu Shih said: “India conquered China culturally for 20 centuries without sending a single soldier across her border.”

Gurcharan Das, October 30th 2015

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