Indian politicians will just have to move on from clichés like shared ‘spiritual ties’ and ‘roti-beti’ relations (ties of livelihood and marriage) to define India-Nepal relations. Geopolitical interests and nationalism have always trumped cultural and kinship ties between the two countries. Demographic transformation in Nepal will also make it an increasingly undependable ally.
Having shed vestiges of its feudal past and embraced democracy, Nepal’s political discourse has revolved around defining its national interest and nationalism.
Although it is not going to gain control over contentious disputed border areas by incorporating them in an official map, Kalapani will not be the last controversy to dog India-Nepal relations.
But do Delhi’s mandarins understand the virulence of anti-India sentiments in Nepal?
What Lit the Fire of Anti-India Sentiments in Nepal?
Indian foreign policy-makers tend to downplay Nepal’s anxieties. Otherwise how could India cause unspeakable misery to the Nepalese people by a trade blockade in 1989 over its misgivings about King Birendra’s defence purchases from China? Why were ‘roti-beti’ ties forgotten when India put its weight behind another supply blockade led by the people of Nepal’s Terai region in 2015?
And had India learnt to respect Nepal’s sovereignty, would it have demanded amendments in its new Constitution within days of its promulgation?
However, the tinder for lighting an anti-India fire in Nepal has not been created by India’s imperiousness alone.
An anti-India undercurrent has always existed in Nepal, especially amongst the Kathmandu elite, which is pro-West and strongly influenced by Western NGOs. Earlier, it was encouraged by the monarchy whenever it felt vulnerable. There are many other precedents for tacit promotion of anti-India sentiment.
In December 2000 for example, youth in Kathmandu rioted and beat up tourists – especially Indians – in the city, after rumours circulated that Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan had made anti-Nepal remarks (which incidentally he hadn’t made).
Maoist Chief Prachanda used the incident to describe the elected government of Prime Minister GP Koirala as “an agent of Indian expansionism.” Some opportunists in the Nepali Congress used the violence to initiate an unsuccessful no-confidence motion against Koirala.
Politics of Nepal PM Relies Significantly On Fanning Anti-India Sentiment
This time around, political parties normally friendly to India are also part of the anti-India or pro-Nepal phalanx, underlining the depth of the public mood. There are several reasons for this upsurge of resentment: ultra-nationalism in Nepal is now highly profitable politically; the anti-Indian orientation of the Kathmandu elite, and a highly-emotional, vulnerable and aspirational young population at unease with itself and the future of Nepal.
As a sovereign nation, Nepal’s right to pursue its national interest is unquestionable.
However, the politics of the present Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, has relied significantly on fanning anti-India sentiment. With little to show in terms of governance, he has been found lashing out against India, even blaming it for the COVID pandemic as a handy political crutch. He has also learnt that leaning towards China works, and is an effective pressure point with India.
He also uses a small but powerful Kathmandu elite which refuses to come to terms with the unfortunate geography of Nepal. Its nationalism is defined negatively vis-a-vis India, feeding off Indian diplomatic misadventures. Many of them benefitted from the monarchy but flipped their loyalties as democracy gained ground. Just as fomenting anti-India sentiment helped consolidate public support for the monarchy, they now translate that sentiment into a modern, democratic and liberal discourse. It helps them to hang on to the coat-tails of the new political leaders.
Nepal, Like India, Hasn’t Managed to Tap Into Its Growing Youth Population
Nepal’s transformation from a feudal Hindu nation – where the King was the living incarnation of Lord Vishnu – to a secular, republican democracy, has been momentous. The change was wrought not so much by the older democratic parties seeking accommodation with a monarchy stumbling through an alcohol and drug-induced haze, but by its youthful population joining the Maoist insurgency. The Maoist cadre consisted overwhelmingly of disgruntled and disillusioned youth from excluded communities, though not only from them.
Despite the political revolution, there has been no dramatic change in the lives of the next generation of Nepalese youth.
Nearly 52 percent of Nepal’s population is estimated to be below 24 years of age. There is a youth bulge, but Nepal, like India, is unable to take advantage of its demographic opportunity – the population-profile has become younger, but economic growth and job opportunities have not kept pace.
The school-leaving examination results – even now – show an average failure rate of more than 50 percent.
Students are no longer failed but given a low grade point average, making access to university education difficult. Most of the failures are likely to be from government schools in rural areas. This youth is politically aware and connected to the world through the internet and media. Intensely aspirational, it finds the livelihood ambitions and lifestyle it aspires unattainable.
Economic Migration to India Is No Longer Appealing to Nepalis
Migration of youth for jobs or foreign employment has been an important safety valve for Nepal. Nearly three-fourths of household-absentees in foreign employment are estimated to be in the 16 to 34 year age-group. Besides, this youthful population no longer sees India – with its low wages and poor working conditions – as a Shangri-la. Nor is the Indian Army their first choice any more.
In short, economic migration to India, although low-cost, is also seen as low gain.
This expectant and aspirational youth is also ripe for social unrest and violence. It is also easy fodder for those who want to inflame anti-India sentiments.
How Can Kathmandu’s Influential Anti-India Elite Be ‘Isolated’?
Demographers say that Nepal’s youth bulge will continue for another three decades. India has made little effort to understand Nepal’s youthful population.
If Delhi is serious about re-forging close links with Kathmandu, then the future of Nepalese youth must be factored into its strategic thinking.
Only then can Kathmandu’s minuscule but disproportionately influential anti-India elite be isolated.
However, first, the present central government seated in New Delhi will have to shed its Hindutva blinkers. Although Nepal is overwhelmingly Hindu (about 81 percent) there is no Hindu Ummah. Hinduism is no longer relevant to defining Nepalese domestic politics or its national interests. India, therefore, needs to go back to the drawing board to formulate its future Nepal policy.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)