Political Science, LAW & General Paper

Rebooting India-Nepal Relations (22/8/17)

Background:

With global geopolitics on the boil, and the Hindi-Chini relationship in free fall, it should be in India’s interest to secure its own neighbourhood, and that can only be through letting national politics and governance of the smaller neighbours evolve without interference.

India-Nepal relationship in past decade:

  • India played a valued role in ending the Maoist insurgency in 2006.
  • The period thereafter was marked by escalating micro-meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs.
  • The presence of India’s heavy hand contributed in numerous ways to the distortion of consensual governance needed in transitional times.
  • India ‘noted’ rather than welcomed the Constitution.
  • A society trying to emerge from the April 2015 Great Earthquake was slapped with the punitive Great Blockade.

New Delhi’s heavy-handedness:

While keeping silent for years on Nepal’s post-conflict transitional justice process, in November 2015 India’s representative in Geneva cynically utilised the forum of the Human Rights Council to influence government change in Kathmandu.

Motives behind heavy-handedness:

  • At the tactical level, New Delhi’s motives behind the heavy-handedness of the recent past may have to do with electoral calculations related to the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh polls.
  • On the Constitution, the idea of a ‘buffer’ province is thought to have been floated either to prevent third country militant infiltration or to control national-level politics in Kathmandu. Some point to an agenda to try to take Nepal back to ‘Hindu state’ constitutional status.
  • For the long term, Indian strategists may be seeking ways to get Kathmandu to allow the construction of high dams and deep reservoirs on Nepal’s rivers — for flood control, navigation, urban use and irrigation in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. A particular federal demarcation might make Kathmandu more amenable.

Backfiring:

The Great Blockade forced the Kathmandu political leadership to reach out to Beijing and sign a slew of trade, transit and infrastructural agreements with it. Few know that Nepal is today better connected by air to Chinese cities than to India.

Pending matters:

The two nations need to concentrate on the numerous matters that need concentration and resolution.

  • The open border:
    It is a unique joint heritage of the two countries.
    While it is Nepal’s Left that has traditionally demanded restrictions on the border, the call now rises from the Indian security establishment.
    There are border disputes pending between the two countries — at Susta, Kalapani and the ‘tri-junction’ of Lipulekh.
  • Floods:
    A permanent bilateral mechanism is required to save the plains population of Nepal from suffering.
    The Kosi Barrage and attendant embankments have the possibility of wreaking havoc because siltation of six decades has raised the riverbed within the levees far above the outlying tracts.
    Options like high dam in the hills of Nepal or redistribution of waters into various older channels of the Kosi in Bihar must be discussed.
  • Economy:
    The impact of demonetisation and the application of Goods and Services Tax on Nepal’s economy and citizenry.
    Similarly, Kathmandu prefers not to discuss the fact that the Nepali rupee is pegged to the Indian rupee and what it means for the long run.
  • Trade:
    The arbitrary blockages and go-slow at Indian Customs at border points, the selective use of quarantine for the export of Nepali agricultural produce, the increasing high-handedness of the Sashastra Seema Bal (India’s frontier force in this sector) in dealing with Nepalis crossing over — these are only some of the other challenges on the bilateral plane.
  • Rights of migrants:
    The rights of migrant Indian labour in Nepal and Nepali labour in India is a topic that rarely comes up.
  • Hydropower:
    Nepal has since long planned to sell electricity to India once it has a hydropower surplus, and the completion of the much-delayed Dhalkebar-Muzaffarpur transmission line was supposed to facilitate that.
    An Indian government directive that it will not allow import of electricity other than from power companies with more than 51% Indian equity is an issue here.

Conclusion:

 

As Nepal is moving towards normalcy under its new Constitution, and with India seemingly changing gears on its Nepal policy, one hopes for a threshold of maturity in relations between South Asia’s oldest nation-state and its largest democracy. New Delhi must use the visit of Nepal’s newly anointed Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, as an opportunity to hit the reset button on Nepal-India relations. Indian interventionism having backfired, the Nepal PM’s visit is an opportunity to raise the level of bilateral ties.