When the then Nepal prime minister Sushil Koirala attended the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, there was hope for a rejuvenation in bilateral ties. Such an optimism was also backed by Modi’s aim to help India forge stronger ties with its neighbours.
The debut of the “neighbourhood first” policy was spectacular by all measures. No other leader in the past had invited leaders of the SAARC nation to his/her swearing-in ceremony.
The symbolic gesture helped Modi to hit the job running as far as foreign policy was concerned. However, three and a half years later, the “neighbourhood first” policy is now under scrutiny. Courtesy: Nepal.
Communists rise to power
As per latest news reports, the Left alliance — CPN-UML and CPN Maoist — have won an outright majority to form the next government after the democratically-struggling Nepal voted for a new parliament.
According to the latest Election Commission of Nepal report, the Left alliance has won 116 out of the 165 directly-elected seats in the parliament.
For the first time since the republic came into existence in 2008, the Communists command a clear majority.
Given the historic antipathy of the Communists towards India, the election may end up being a watershed event in India-Nepal ties. And the reasons for it are not difficult to find.
India’s big brother attitude: 1950 to present
Both Nepali Congress — often considered pro-India — and the Communists have decried the alleged “big brother” attitude of India.
In geopolitics, “big brother” attitude is an oft-repeated allegation against regional powers. But Nepali politicians are not totally wrong too.
Since the 1950s, India has treated Nepal as an extension of its own geographic reality, so much as those allegations of New Delhi’s “intervention” in Kathmandu’s domestic affairs have been raised at regular intervals.
It was this anti-India sentiment which helped in the rise of the Maoists in Nepal, who waged a civil war between 1996 and 2006.
The Nepali antipathy seemed to have hit the nadir in the last decade or so.
During the popular uprising against the Shah monarchy, India remained a confused observer of the happenings. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran stated in his latest book How India sees the World that India first backed the Royal Nepal Army against the Maoists. However, sensing the change in the wind, India later backed a reconciliation between the mainstream parties and Maoist.
But historical baggage attached to India as well as its own confused policy between 2001 and 2008 did not help matters for India.
Downturn in ties under Modi
Not that India under Modi did not start on a good note with Nepal. In August 2014, Modi was the first prime minister to visit Nepal in 17 years. The prime minister had also announced a $1 billion Line of Credit for the former Hindu kingdom.
India’s prompt response in the aftermath of the devastating Nepal earthquake was appreciated. However, the way Indian media presented the whole rescue effort as some kind of a “favour” bolstered the local antipathy towards Nepal.
A democratic Nepal felicitated the rise of China in Nepal. For a country long under the intimidating shadows of India, China came as a saviour.
As per a Hindustan Times report, China has invested about $8 billion in 2017. In the last 11 years, China’s bilateral trade with Nepal has grown 17 times faster than India’s. In 2014, the year Modi took power, China surpassed India as the biggest foreign investor in Nepal.
If economic ties are any mark of diplomatic trajectory, then India seems to have already lost the plot.
To make matters worse, India enforced a blockade on the India-Nepal border, unhappy over the new constitution which it believed did not do justice to the people of the Terai plains.
In this case too, India played into the hands of anti-India forces in Nepal and reinforced the “big brother” argument in the hill state.
Moreover, the Nepalis were reminded of the 1987 blockade, which was a result of India’s strategic insecurity vis-à-vis China.
Such was the impact of the long-drawn blockade that even KP Sharma Oli, reported by the media to be India-friendly, turned towards China.
“It is unthinkable that a sovereign nation faces such an inhumane and severe pain, misery and blockade in the 21st century for having a Constitution with progressive, pro-people and democratic contents through an elected Constituent Assembly with people’s overwhelming participation and democratic franchise,” Oli said in a televised address in November 2015.
With such an acrimonious downturn in the last two years, the recent results come as no surprise.
A China-backed Oli is all set to bolster China’s footprint in Nepal, all at the cost of India.
Can we hope for a better future?
Of all the countries that India shares a border, it is perhaps Nepal, with whom it shares a very close relationship.
Given such “brotherly” ties, the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship came as no surprise. Much to the credit of both the countries, the treaty has stood the test of times despite occasional upheavals.
But that novelty that India has been enjoying may soon end if India does not do the necessary course correction.
In his latest book, Saran, a former ambassador to Nepal, stressed upon the need for India to give open access to its ports and transportation network to Nepal. According to him, this may help create “positive inter-dependency” between each other.
In the post-blockade era, Saran’s idea seems to be a repentance for what India did in 2015. But will that help resurrect the relationship is yet to be seen.
This article was originally written for Firstpost.com