In the United States of the early 1950s, as Mao’s Communist party regime consolidated its hold on China and marched into Tibet, exiling Washington’s favourite Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-Shek, to the island of Taiwan, the American strategic community was convulsed in a debate over “Who Lost China?” I only hope that nearly seven decades later their Indian equivalents will not be letting out the anguished cry, “Who Lost Nepal?”
There is, of course, only one place for fingers to be pointed, and that is at our own government in New Delhi. Despite its increasingly feeble denials, India’s de facto blockade of Nepal has choked the country’s economy, cut off its oil supplies, caused genuine hardship and provoked a groundswell of hostility against our country – from the one place on the planet whose relationship with us is so fraternal that we maintain open borders with it.
How did this come to pass, and why? India’s displeasure at Nepal’s new constitution and its refusal to accommodate the desires of its Madhesi and Tharu population is understandable. The people of the Terai (or the Madhes, as Indians prefer to call the region south of the hills abutting our border) are in many ways kin to – and essentially indistinguishable from – their brethren on our side of the frontier.
Here’s my take on how a centralised Modi regime succeeded in alienating Nepal:
- India’s de facto blockade of Nepal had choked the country’s economy and provoked a groundswell of hostility against India.
- New Delhi feels Kathmandu’s leadership should have taken India’s concerns into account before announcing a constitution.
- New Delhi allowed itself to be on the losing side in the prime ministerial race, unsubtly backing Koirala and turning K P Oli into a raging anti-Indian chauvinist.
- When the constitution-makers in Kathmandu went ahead, India reacted with a pique unbecoming of a major regional power.
Madhesis as a Minority
Some Nepalis consider them to be essentially transplanted Biharis, but they have been there for centuries and more, and no one contests their legitimate claim to an honoured role in shaping Nepal’s political destiny. But rather than choosing an inclusive path by giving them their own autonomous regions or provinces, the new constitution essentially renders them a minority in almost every province bar one (see map).
The unhappiness of most of the Madhesi people with this decision, and the rioting that followed the announcement of the new provinces, has added to India’s disquiet, since problems in Nepal inevitably spill over into India. It is unofficially estimated that at the height of the Nepalese civil war less than a decade ago, 7 million of Nepal’s 27 million people had sought refuge in India (undocumented, since Nepalese need no passports to come here).
If the anger in the Terai leads to a separatist movement, for instance, India will likely bear the brunt of a new refugee crisis. New Delhi felt, understandably, that Kathmandu’s leadership, overwhelmingly composed of the dominant hill elites, should have taken India’s concerns into account before announcing a constitution so fraught with potential problems.
But it’s a far cry from feeling fraternal concern about a vital neighbour making a major political error, and manifesting that irritation through virtually cutting off that country’s lifeline from our country, thereby giving rise to profound resentment of what is justifiably portrayed as Big Brother’s bullying. The suspicion that in doing so the BJP government is pandering to voters in Bihar’s ongoing assembly polls is not entirely unfounded.
The fact is there’s enough blame to be cast on our side too. The foreign secretary was sent as a special envoy to warn Kathmandu not to embark on a negative course, but that was just days before the constitution was promulgated and after it had already been agreed among all the major national political parties. The time for discreet but strong-arm diplomacy was months earlier, when the signs were apparent that the constitution was likely not to be the inclusive one India had hoped for.
Our foreign secretary is an outstandingly able diplomat, but he is no Nepal expert and has never served there. A political envoy, or an all-party team of Indian political leaders with well-established contacts in that country, should have been dispatched before the summer with a clear and unambiguous message of the importance India attached to a formula acceptable to all shades of Nepali opinion.
I have reason to believe our embassy, led by the excellent Ambassador Ranjit Rae, read the warning signs in time and sent urgent messages to New Delhi calling for early diplomatic intervention. These were ignored. One astute observer told me privately that the “PMO took its eyes off the ball”. But when decision-making has been so centralised in the Modi regime that every ministry has to send its important files to the PMO for clearance, how many balls can Modi and his beleaguered minions keep their eyes on?
That was the Modi government’s first mistake. By the time it woke up to the impending crisis and dispatched the foreign secretary to Kathmandu, it was already too late. The time for quiet, discreet, but effective diplomacy had long since passed; the constitution was already a “done deal” before we even showed our cards.
When the constitution-makers in Kathmandu went ahead and issued the constitution they had already agreed upon, India reacted with a pique unbecoming of a major regional power. We showed our displeasure publicly by, in effect, cutting off essential supplies on which all Nepalese are dependent.
Making Enemies of Brothers
The problem was not just that this came across as overbearing, but that it had all the subtlety of a blunderbuss: instead of sending a message to the elite in the hills, we hurt people we didn’t want to hurt – the aam aadmi of Nepal. An ordinary worker in Kathmandu who can’t get an auto-rickshaw to take his pregnant wife to a hospital because there’s no petrol in the pumps isn’t going to worry about the niceties of constitutional inclusiveness. He is just going to curse India for doing this to him. We made enemies of the very people we have always claimed are our brothers.
And what have we achieved by doing this? A basic rule of international politics is that you apply pressure calibrated to a desired outcome – in this case, changes acceptable to the people of the Terai. But instead we imposed a blockade after the constitution had already been adopted; it would be impossible for any government in Kathmandu to change it at this stage under Indian pressure without being perceived as surrendering its sovereignty. So we have incurred deep unpopularity in the hills without gaining anything concrete for the Madhesis – a lose-lose proposition.
Backing the Wrong Horse
On top of that New Delhi allowed itself to be identified with the losing side in the prime ministerial race, unsubtly backing Sushil Koirala and turning the once-Indophile Oli into a raging anti-Indian chauvinist. Well, Oli is now the prime minister, Delhi: deal with it.
India’s mess in Nepal adds to the growing sense of disquiet amongst students of Indian foreign policy about the Modi government’s management of relations on the subcontinent. A combination of arrogance and ineptitude is all-too-often visible where subtlety and pro-active diplomacy could have delivered the desired results.
Relations with three of our neighbours – Pakistan, the Maldives and now Nepal – are worse than they have ever been. If we don’t soon embark on a serious course correction, the only question will be who we are going to alienate next.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author)