Foreign Affairs

Neighbourly concerns

Staying away from active involvement in Nepal’s domestic matters will benefit India


Double standards have always been characteristic of Nepali polity. In recent times, this feature of our political leadership has extended to some sections of the intelligentsia too. Not too long ago during an interaction at an Indian government-funded think tank, a leading Nepali civil society figure made an astounding statement, declaring that the political leaders were a failure, and calling for India’s “mediation” to end the ongoing stalemate. It was perhaps a suggestion that non-party leaders should have taken more seriously.

Indian nitpicking in Kathmandu turns into sycophancy for many people in our political spectrum during their hobnobbing in Delhi. Of course, the fact that India has a deep influence in Nepal is not a secret. Also, attempts to tilt Delhi’s clout in one’s own favour and take on political rivals in the act have been regular phenomena. The leaders themselves have readily acknowledged that.

But this story has another side to it. The Indian side never tires of talking about its “special relationship” with Nepal, but it does not seem to be interested in learning a lesson from its policy failure in the neighbourhood. India’s role in Nepali domestic politics has always been a matter of polemics. Nobody denies the fact that independent India supported the Nepali democratic process, whether in the 1950 movement against the Rana oligarchy, the 1990 Jana Andolan against the partyless Panchayat regime or the 2006 movement against a monarch-turned-dictator . Actually, it was India that played the role of a facilitator to broker a 12-point understanding between the erstwhile Seven-Party Alliance and the rebel Maoists, which ultimately paved the way for the cessation of the insurgency and removal of the monarchy.

Notwithstanding these facts, India is criticised in Nepal for its alleged highhandedness, and there is a wider perception that Indian mandarins try to micro-manage Nepal’s domestic politics. How justified this perception is could be the matter of a separate discussion, but it is worth weighing the recent calls for India’s “mediation” to end the current political imbroglio.

Let us look at the major reasons behind the current stalemate. Undoubtedly, the bone of contention is the difference over federal structure of the country. Leaders across parties have unequivocally said that if the disagreements on federalism are sorted out, the rest of the issues, including a national consensus government which will then hold elections, can easily be resolved.

Issues like nomenclature of the states and the bases on which the country should be federated, among others, are totally internal matters. Calling for India’s mediation to settle the current stalemate clearly means seeing some role for it even on the federal issue. How could any foreign country (whether it be India or China) play any kind of role in determining our political, social, economic and cultural destiny? It is obvious that India has a genuine interest in Nepal, and the protracted stalemate does attract its concern. But this does not justify the position that it should yet again broker or mediate another deal among Nepal’s political forces.

However, having huge leverage in Nepal, India could choose to continue encouraging and nudging Nepal’s political parties. But there should be a “Lakshman Rekha”, especially since there are already deep suspicions in Nepal about India’s intentions. Whether these suspicions are hyperbolic or have some basis, it is in the interest of both the countries not to let the suspicion grow into long-term irritants. Already, New Delhi is seen as a factor in almost every political fluctuation, downfall or formation of new governments in Nepal. Attempts to get involved more actively would further damage India’s credentials in Nepal. Otherwise, active involvement can further fuel anti-Indian sentiments and boost elements who continue to accuse Delhi of highhandedness in Nepal.

A few months ago, prominent Indian foreign affairs and policy experts admitted that India’s neighbours fear it or chafe under its perceived condescension. The report NAM 2.0, prepared by such experts as Shyam Sharan and Pratap Bhanu Mehta after a year-long discussion, urged the Indian government to go the extra mile in bilateral relations instead of insisting on reciprocity or short-term equivalence to diminish such perceptions. Another think tank, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), has asked the Indian government, in its recently published book India’s Neighbourhood, to resist the temptation to micro-manage Nepal’s politics at it would be too messy, and the outcome would be the opposite of the intended one.

It has also cautioned the South Block not to play favourites among political parties, but instead urged it to engage with all of them as well as non-political stakeholders such as the Nepal Army and civil society.

The days ahead will show to what extent the South Block will embrace these suggestions. No doubt, a hands-off approach will be the best option for India. It is the sole responsibility of the Nepali people and their representatives to chart the future course for their country with the goodwill and support of the international community. It is important that Nepali political forces show enough courage and responsibility to forge consensus and find the direction to end this painfully long transition. They have to show that a third party “mediation” is not necessary, as some believe.

This article originally appeared in the Oct 18th 2012 issue of The Kathmandu Post.: