Can India stabilise Nepal?: Challenges ahead

Given the geographic proximity, extensive social, political and economic relations between the two countries the question is not whether India will or should stabilise Nepal. It is in India’s enlightened self-interest to have a stable Nepal. The question is: Can it?

Recent developments in US-India relations indicate that the US would like to enable India to stabilise its neighbours. India may not be able to influence Pakistan and Bangladesh or even Sri Lanka, but Nepal is vulnerable to its pressure. In the context of the Maoist insurgency, US ambassador to India David Mulford was quoted to have said that the US wanted India to lead the international efforts to bring peace and stability in Nepal. Despite the current hiccup in the nuclear deal, US-India relations are most likely to determine the South Asian security paradigm.

Although Nepal also borders China, the Himalayas constrain the contacts between the two countries, which, in turn, determine the nature of India-Nepal relations as well. This situation gives India a tremendous leverage over Nepal. Conversely, India cannot remain unaffected by instability in Nepal because of the open border between the two countries. The current violence in Tarai cannot be understood in isolation from the poverty, politics and security situation in Bihar and UP.

Nepal has been unstable for over a decade and uncertainties loom large. Abduction, extortion and murder by political and criminal elements continue unabated. Despite the pressure form India and the international community, the CA elections could not be held in such an environment. The current crisis originated from malfunctioning of democracy in the 1990s, the consequent Maoist insurgency and the royal takeover in Feb. 2005. It was hard to expect a smooth functioning of democracy in Nepal in the South Asian context where democracy has foundered everywhere save India. Even in India, democracy has its structure but not the spirit.

In the past, India, China and the US regarded the monarchy as a stabilising institution. Now it is on the verge of collapse but the institutions of democracy have not been developed as its reliable substitute nor can the monarchy be expected to play its traditional role any more. This is a real crisis. In such a case, what can be the possible Indian policy strategies in Nepal? And will there be a consensus policy in New Delhi? India can live with communist governments in West Bengal but not in Nepal. The Maoists in Nepal will definitely reduce India’s preponderant influence. India’s challenge is aggravated by the fact that the Maoists have not ruled out the use of violence to capture power. If they really do so, Nepal will be even more unstable.

The Indian government is facing a challenge not only in Nepal but from within India as well. First, there are publicly expressed differences over Nepal policy between the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and, of course, the strong BJP. Secondly, in the absence of a strong political leader such as Nehru or Gandhi or even a Vajpayee, the Indian bureaucracy, defence and intelligence units may want to work independently, possibly weakening each other. The hasty change in Indian policy of “two pillars of stability in Nepal” in April 2006 only indicated the poor assessment of the Nepali situation if not the lack of a long-term strategy.

Now that one of the two pillars is almost gone, and the second pillar is not strong enough to support the state power, the question of stabilising Nepal becomes more challenging. Thirdly, India has not been able to address the issues of governance or security situation in poor bordering states of UP and Bihar that consist of almost 25 per cent of India’s population. Finally, as indicated by recent incidents, India has not been able to address its own Maoist problem, affecting about 170 districts from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh. Both short-term and long-term challenges of stabilising Nepal have become complex. In the 1950s and 1990s, the problem was one of political change, which was resolved easily enough. The new challenges are of good governance and social and economic development that have been dogging northern Indian states as well as Nepal for long. India was Nepal’s major donor in the infrastructure and educational development during the 1950s and 1960s. After a slump in the 1970s and 1980s its aid package has increased substantially again in the recent years. The Indian aid policy ignored the issues of building the institutions of democracy and rule of law. Probably, that was not possible during the king’s direct rule (1960-1990).

Moreover, India itself was waking up rather slowly to the emerging issues at home. Now if the US wants to enable India to stabilise its neighbours, it has to come forward with programmes for more equitable social and economic development and good governance in India as well as its neighbours.

Acharya is former ambassador to UN