Kuala Lumpur, September 14 (SAM): New Delhi has been receiving shock after shock in the past few days from Nepal, a country which is the closest to India in religious and culture terms, and which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited four times since he came to power four years ago.
The simplistic theory of the votaries of Hindutva that Hinduism alone is enough to keep Nepal in the Indian sphere of influence has been disproved time and again. And yet, few Indians seem to realize that religious and cultural affinities are of no consequence in relations between sovereign countries.
The notion of national sovereignty of territorial States is more powerful and more enduring that religious, linguistic or ethnic ties in international relations.
And if New Delhi finds itself at odds with Kathmandu ever so often, it is because it has consistently failed to realize the importance of sovereignty vis-à-vis Nepal.
Seventy years after the end of the end of the Indian Empire, New Delhi still considers itself the “Raj’s” successor, demanding obeisance from its neighbors, who were earlier parts of British India or were buffer States like Nepal and Bhutan.
However, there is another side to the story which is also relevant. While New Delhi’s “divine right” to intervene in the internal affairs of the neighbors was disliked, squabbling politicians in the neighboring countries often cynically used India to advance their partisan interests at the expense of their nation’s sovereignty. And this would often come in handy to exploitative Mandarins and busybodies in Delhi.
Blind To Changes
But the situation is changing, with the neighbors getting more and more self confident. The process of change has got a turbo-boost with the emergence of China as an alternative power which can be utilized when India becomes overbearing.
To New Delhi’s discomfiture, the neighbors find China to be a totally different kettle of fish. Beijing does not interfere in the internal affairs (whether it is domestic or foreign affairs) but only gives an attractive alternative, namely, ample funds for infrastructural development which the still under-developed South Asian countries are hankering for. Big Brotherly and condescending advice is eschewed and decisions on projects are left to the host governments. Beijing only funds and executes them, and that, efficiently and quickly in ways Indians are not known to do.
Using the Chinese lever, the powerful Nepalese government (which is a coalition of K.P.Oli-Pushpa Kamal Dahal) has shown India the door quite brazenly.
Immediately after the Fourth BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu in which Narendra Modi was a participant, Nepal struck a deal with China which generously gave access to seven of its ports. China has agreed to let Nepal use Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang open seaports, and Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse dry ports for trading with third countries
The deal also includes future road and rail connections between Nepal and China. And given the speed with which the Chinese execute their projects, the envisaged connectivity will see the light of day soon.
Nepalese traders can gain access to the Chinese side after producing an electronic invoice. This is in sharp contrast to the current business norms applied while trading through Indian ports, wherein they have to produce the original invoice.
“The transit protocol does not specify paths, allowing Nepal to choose viable routes; additional ports and dry ports can be added without amending the treaty, and Nepali trucks plates may go all the way to Shigatse (Xigatse) railhead to pick up goods,” tweeted senior Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit.
“It is now time to make the roadways ready to link Nepal to Shigatse, only then can we say ‘bye bye blockade’ forever!” Dixit added.
The Sino-Nepalese protocol is expected to be implemented in the next one month. Nepal will use six border points opened by the Chinese side to trade through these ports.
No To BIMSTEC Military Exercise
Nepal followed up the transit pact with China by deciding to attend the BIMTEC military exercise on tackling urban terrorism this month only an observer not as a participant.
Prime Minister Oli had come under political pressure not to allow Nepal be part of an India-dominated military alliance, especially when the primary mandate of BIMSTEC is not to tackle terrorism or urban terrorism but to promote international connectivity.
Furthermore, the military exercise had not got the formal sanction of the Fourth BIMSTEC summit in August, though cooperation in combating urban terrorism was mentioned in the Kathmandu Declaration.
Another reason for the government’s decision to boycott the military exercise was its eagerness to signal to India that it does not want BIMSTEC to replace SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), a body in which India’s neighbors feel comfortable and India feels hemmed in.
Nepal conveyed this through the governmental coalition partner Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda. In a talk at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi recently, Prachanda said that Nepal is not for the reduction of SAARC into a non-entity.
Through a series of actions since the formation of SAARC in the 1980s, India has downgraded it using Pakistan’s cross border terrorist activities as an excuse. India has put the next SAARC summit in Islamabad in question because of its unending conflict with Pakistan.
Nepal is all for BIMSTEC but it wants it to be primarily an economic union and not a military of a strategic one to counter this or that country. In contrast, India is primarily interested in using BIMSTEC (and other organizations) to counter the influence of Pakistan and China strategically and militarily.
Nepal and other members of BIMSTEC do not share this Indian agenda, though to humor India, cooperation to fight cross border terrorism was inserted into the latest BIMSTEC Declaration.
India’s tendency to use regional cooperation bodies to push its regional geo-political agenda is all too apparent to its neighbors and they are resisting it in their own way.
They may sign agreements but they deliberately drag their feet on implementation. They have also opted out of agreements. They explore alternatives to India, to New Delhi’s chagrin.
It would therefore be in New Delhi’s interest to analyze the behavior of its neighbors; come to terms with the harsh reality of its all round unpopularity or as Nehru said: “stop living in a world of their own creation”; and devise strategies to remedy the situation.
The first step is not to interfere in the internal affairs of the neighbors. They should be allowed to choose their domestic and foreign policies – something that China has been doing and winning goodwill in the region in the region. In the eyes of India’s neighbors, India is the hegemon, not China. India is seen as an interfering power while China is not. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which India sees as a threat to the sovereignty of the client countries is not seen as such by China’s clients.
2015 Economic Blockade
India’s current unpopularity in Nepal is due to the economic blockade which the Modi government indirectly supported in September-October 2015. The blockade was organized by the Madhesis or the people of Indian origin in Nepal over an internal political issue. Indian supplies were not sent to Nepal on the plea that there was a blockade. Delhi truculently silent on the fact that the blockade was the handiwork of ethnic Indians and pro-India parties in Nepal.
The blockade hit all sections of Nepalese society, but particularly the 200,000 families hit by the devastating earthquake which took place earlier in 2015.
That shortsighted Indian policy predictably opened the doors to China which was waiting in the wings to fund infrastructure projects under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A Sino-Nepalese trade and transit agreement was mooted when the pro-Indian Nepali Congress lost power to pro-China K.P.Oli in October 2015. Nepal formally jointed the BRI in 2017.
It is therefore time India became neutral vis-a-vis Nepal’s domestic and foreign policies. The layoff will, over time, enable Nepal to come out of the fear of Indian hegemony.
Go Back To Nehru’s Panchsheel
And the Mandarins and political leaders in New Delhi would be well advised to go back to Nehru’s “Panchsheel” or the five principles of peaceful coexistence in which “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs” was included.
It is a matter of shame that the Indian ruling elite had to be lectured about Panchsheel by Nepalese leader Prachanda. In his talk at the Indian Council of World Affairs recently, Prachanda said: “Respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs help buttress trust which is absolutely essential to governing a friendly relationship. Let me tell you frankly: small neighbors have some sensitivities that need to be understood and respected.”
(The featured image at the top shows Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Oli with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the Janaki temple in Nepal. But Hindutva has its limits.Photo.The Hindu)