1-7 April 2016 #802

Escape velocity

There should be no reason why India should tie itself in knots over Nepal seeking closer relations with China
Rubeena Mahato


The transit treaty signed between Nepal and China last week undoubtedly marks a milestone in bilateral relations between the two countries. There are detractors who have said the agreements are impossible to implement. Some have gone further, spelling doom, reminding Nepalis of their absolute dependence on India and warning of the wrath they are likely to incur for challenging Indian hegemony in the region.

To be sure, we have to wait and see how the agreements will play out in real terms and the tangible benefits that will accrue, if any. But more than anything, the agreements mark a major shift in how Nepal has conventionally engaged with China. The days of a subdued, cautious diplomacy, practiced by both countries in relation to each other, largely to avoid alarming and offending India, is over.

There was no reason for a country like Nepal not to foster better access and connectivity with a booming next-door economy like China. But geopolitics meant that until now, Nepal was happy to orient itself towards the more accessible and culturally closer India. China appeared fine with assuming a lesser role in the region.

The accusation from the Indian end that Nepal is playing the China Card is laughable. In fact, so well-entrenched and pervasive is Indian influence in Nepal that under normal circumstances, Prime Minister Oli or any Nepali politician, could not have dared to take such a drastic step. Prime Minister Oli went to India for his first official visit, careful not to break the tradition and hurt Indian sensibilities, even though there were strong voices in Nepal suggesting he do the opposite.

India will continue playing a decisive role in Nepal’s domestic politics, and predictably there are rumours of efforts already underway to topple the current government. It was only India’s rash adventurism that culminated in a nearly five-month long blockade, and its gross miscalculation of the ability of Nepali people to endure hardships that made Oli’s bold foray to the North possible.

With the unthinkable achieved, one could endlessly speculate what would be India’s next move: Will it punish Nepal even more harshly? Will there be another blockade? Will new violence erupt in the Madhes? But frankly, Nepal cannot plan its long-term policies around ‘what India wants’ when India continues to act like an impulsive and irrational bully. There is no reason why Nepal should be chastised for exploring alternatives when it faces the risk of another blockade for even a small perceived slight. Nepal should do what is in its best interest: diversify its trading options, end its reliance on one country and balance the security and economic interests of both neighbours. We should also do all we can to safeguard India’s security sensitivities and assure it that Nepal’s new engagement with China does not come at the cost of its relationship with India.

India for its part, needs to seriously introspect the failings of its foreign policy, one that has led it to sabotage relationships with one friendly nation after another in its own backyard. The current New Delhi establishment with its famously jet-setting Prime Minister is clearly not doing something right.

India with all its soft power, its goodwill and warm people-to-people relations across South Asian countries fails miserably when it comes to establishing a regional political leadership. For its smaller neighbours, India represents a coercive and disruptive power, incapable of rising above petty insecurity and imperial hangovers from the British era. The onus lies on India to try and change this perception.

All said and done, Nepal cannot escape its geography. The unique and long-standing civilisational and cultural ties that Nepal and India share are a source of strength, and should remain so. But equally, there should be no reason why Nepal as an independent country cannot seek better relationship with China. India should be confident enough to let a sovereign Nepal conduct its domestic and foreign affairs in the manner it deems fit.

Instead of lamenting the loss of a nation from its so-called ‘Sphere of Influence’, India should accept the changing reality. If the ‘special’ relationship that Indian and Nepali politicians so love to harp on about is merely a euphemism for ‘partial sovereignty’, it is not acceptable to the Nepali people. And for all his failures and misadventures, Prime Minister Oli deserves credit for driving this point home.

Read also:

A jungle out there, Om Astha Rai

Unintended Trans-Himalayan Consequences, Kanak Mani Dixit

Showing who’s boss, Editorial

The China Syndrome, Editorial

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