SURELY, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wasn't referring to Nepal's current plight when he expressed his desire in August last year to “HIT Nepal”? In August 2014, Modi, received with a rapturous welcome in Kathmandu, told Nepal's Constituent Assembly, “I want to HIT Nepal,” drawing a generous ovation from the lawmakers. HIT in his dictionary meant Highways, Info-highways and Transmission-ways. India wanted to “give this gift at the earliest,” Modi assured.
Just over a year after Modi's visit, the two countries have clashed at the United Nations, Nepal's Prime Minister has made a televised appeal to India to lift its undeclared blockade and China has stepped in to supply fuel.
Nepal is hurting badly. A LPG cylinder is selling for Rs 10,000 and Kathmandu's press corps gets a special allocation from the Government to keep its vehicles moving. The combined energies of the RSS brains trust and the Indian diplomatic corps backing the two-month-long unofficial blockade of vehicles from India into Nepal might well force the little country into submission. China will be of little help this winter as the passages from Nepal to Tibet have become impassable. But if that is the course the RSS and the diplomats intend taking, the counsel by one of Nepal's grittiest politician and current Prime Minister is worth keeping in mind. India's undeclared blockade and the resultant humanitarian crisis in Nepal has undermined historic ties between the two nations as well as the rights of a landlocked country under international law. The current “war- like situation that Nepal has been facing” had pushed the progress made in August 2014 to the background, said K P Oli in his first nationally televised address after becoming Prime Minister. Speaking about China, he added, “we will have our trade volume enhanced and diversified.”
The statement sounded like a warning. In the past, India-Nepal ties have undergone worse phases. In 1969, India had to withdraw its Army checkposts on Nepal's northern frontier with China. Two decades later, a 13-month blockade slashed Nepal's GDP from 9.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent. It was called off after a new Government in New Delhi reversed Rajiv Gandhi's muscular approach to the neighbourhood. But even this seemingly compassionate Government, which had also withdrawn the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka, kept India's security interests firmly configured in response. While calling off the blockade, it forced Nepal to call off its purchase of Chinese military equipment.
The Chinese at that time did not resent this affront. In 1989, China had no appetite for this distraction as it had embarked on a single-minded quest for national economic rejuvenation. It was happy to let India's security interests prevail provided western spooks were discouraged in western Nepal bordering the restive Tibet. That may not be so this time. India has rushed in where Modi’s predecessor feared to even tread. India has planted itself squarely in the South China dispute by repeated endorsements of the American position. At some stage, China might be tempted into paying back in kind by constructing a pipeline or an all-weather route that will not terminate but at least slacken India's control on Nepal's commerce.
India has twice done what a friendly neighbour never does. It first aired the bilateral dispute at the United Nations (UN) and its was the only discordant voice among the 68 countries that spoke on Nepal's human rights record.
In contrast, Bhutan, which echoes India's diplomatic impulses, as well as all other SAARC members — Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives — appreciated Nepal's breakthrough in promulgating the Constitution. What made the exercise in Nepal-bashing worse was the Indian representative was cut off in mid-speech as his allotted time was over. India put the bilateral squabble on the international stage a second time by mentioning “inadequacies” in Nepal's Constitution in the joint statement with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Nepal's response on both occasions highlighted the dishonesty in India's approach to foreign policy. Given its own human rights-related woes, India has always been careful not to seek an international probe when a neighbour faces a similar predicament. But at the UN, it raked up years-old Maoist insurgency in Nepal and sought a report card. If it was a move to isolate the Maoists, UN was not the forum to rail against a country with which India has unique ties.
A large number of Nepalese men serve in the Indian army, almost a quarter of the able bodied Nepali youth works in India and generations of Nepalis have made India their home.
As a very occasional supporter of unilateral sanctions, India is aware that these cause hardship to the common people and never to the ruling dispensation. Besides, the unofficial blockade has led to collateral damage to Indian businessmen.
The key sticking points remain the same. India wants Nepal to create a state where Madheshis are in a majority and is not willing to appreciate the positive side of the Constitution taking shape after eight-long years of ruthless bargaining among political parties. Its diplomats are also aware that federalism has been the most contentious issue since Nepal first embraced the multi-party system in 1990.
India has also sought more seats under the proportionate system so that tiny Madheshi parties, invariably pro-RSS or pro-Intelligence Bureau can enter Parliament just like they made it to the Constituent Assembly despite getting thrashed in the first-past-the-post system. India also fails to recall that democratic Nepal will ultimately concede what is implementable. After all, democratic Nepal gave citizenship to 40 lakh stateless people from the Terai. India also forgets that in order to preach, it should also provide for proportionate representation in its Parliament so that small parties get representation.
Nepal's Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa has already held four rounds of dialogue with Madheshi partners. That should have comforted New Delhi. Even though he's not a Madheshi, Thapa meets some of the Hindutva-inclined Government's reflexes since he is a Monarchist and set to launch a movement to make Nepal a Hindu Rashtra.
The RSS regional pracharak Prem Kumar, along with Nepal's Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh's national pracharak Ved Prakash need to disengage and hand over the job of sorting out the discord to the diplomats. Nepal has always been willing to accommodate India's security interests. But India will have to fight an unpleasant battle to enforce structural changes in Nepal's polity. India may have to pay a high cost for retaining Madheshi sympathy, one of it could be a slackened sphere of influence.