Nepal-India relations Need for a realistic approach

Participation of people’s representatives in formulation of India policy will deepen bilateral relationship.

Tellingly, the past few weeks have seen a surge of interest in the bilateral relationship between Nepal and India, drawing much attention of politicians, media people, foreign policy experts and intellectuals in both the countries. This is due to the emergence of a new political scenario in Nepal. The traditionally accepted democratic forces in the country that India had been conducting business with were sidelined in the Constituent Assembly polls.

Nepal’s relations with India are extensive, which grew to their present state after centuries of interactions between the two South Asian countries of highly uneven sizes and strengths. Now, Nepalis are evidently grappling with different future scenarios that may act as stumbling blocks to advancing Indo-Nepal bilateral relations to a new height. Unless the possible outcomes are weighed and evaluated with maturity, sound judgment with an eye to the realistic position that a powerful country takes in its relation with a smaller neighbour (however strategically important the smaller one may be) is crucial, otherwise the bilateral ties, instead of improving, will be strained even further. It is important to determine the nature of Nepal-India relationship in a proper context.

It would be unwise to evaluate India-Nepal relationship bilaterally. This rather calls for a holistic approach. Nepal needs to weigh India’s evolving relations with China and Pakistan. No less significant is the southern neighbour’s ties with smaller neighbours in Bangladesh and Bhutan. India is sensitive about matters of geo-politics and security while handling its relations

with both big and small neighbours. Along with these primary concerns, economic interests also guide the nature of the ties.

A comprehensive review of the regional context and other closely related concerns are needed to improve Nepal’s relationship with India. For this, insight and ingenuity on the part of politicians, opinion makers, and all those concerned with Nepal-India relationship help in giving it a concrete shape.

Observers and analysts of Nepal-India relations believe that bilateral interactions were, in the past, used as proxies by ruling cliques in the past to solidify their own political positions. This was also true after the Jana Andolan I in 1990. Political parties at the helm used their relationship with India to galvanise their political strength at home. Such a behaviour

invariably undermined national interest. Several examples of such a misconceived approach can be cited in the annals of Nepal-India relations, those that must be avoided by prospective power holders. If the power brokers indulge in similar activities in the future, Nepalis will not have much to look forward to.

In the recent past, Nepal’s response to India’s diplomatic activities has been inadequate due to inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the former’s tactics. Poor and meek representation (even at the highest levels) of Nepali diplomatic interlocutors is to blame for Nepal’s failure to cash in on opportunities at hand. Ad hoc preparation and inadequate negotiating skills on the part of the Nepali diplomats have spiked Nepal’s prospects in diplomatic encounters with Indian diplomats. Furthermore, Nepal’s diplomatic manoeuvrings are reactive rather than proactive. These pitfalls cannot be avoided unless past mistakes and deliberate omissions are taken into consideration. However, it would be gross injustice to put all the blame squarely on the shoulders of Nepali diplomats. Political instability and weak leadership much evident after 1994 are as much to blame.

The astounding success of April 2006 people’s movement aroused the sensibilities of ethnic and caste groups, that in turn resulted in election of hitherto downtrodden and marginalised groups to the Constituent Assembly. This political development augurs well in so far as those segments avail themselves of a great opportunity to contribute to formulation and execution of Nepal’s India policy for the mutual benefit of both the sides.

Indisputably, the main task before the Constituent Assembly members is to draft a new constitution, but strengthening Nepal’s relations with India should also assume no less importance. Two-thirds of Nepal’s external activities concern India. Participation of people’s chosen representatives in formulation of a new India policy will carry a much higher significance in deepening bilateral ties. In other words, national consensus can be expected to advance the relationship to new heights.

On the face of it, today’s political uncertainties make the task of developing a realistic and people-friendly India policy look like a Herculean task, however, there is no insurmountable barrier if the politicians take the matter to their heart and pursue a consensual approach in an atmosphere of trust and with an aim of mutual benefit in the new political reality.

Shrestha is ex-foreign ministry official