By N Sathiya Moorthy*
All is well that ends well, and on the Nepal front, recommencing road-transport of goods, including essentials from India, should come as a breather, not only to the people of the Himalayan nation but also to the mandarins in New Delhi’s South Block. Yet, while the wounds might disappear soon, the scars would remain for long in the average Nepali mind – and more so because the bilateral wound keeps getting re-opened every now and then. As if these were not enough, India’s handling of other smaller nations in South Asia leaves a bad taste elsewhere too in the neighbourhood.
Despite the change of leadership in New Delhi, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s welcome initiative to have all SAARC Heads of Government at his swearing-in ceremony in end-May 2014, the worse does not seem to be over for India’s neighbourhood policy. The current misunderstanding with Nepal, first over their new Constitution, followed by the one regarding essential supplies to the land-locked Republic, may have brought back memories of the official blockade that the erstwhile Rajiv Gandhi regime had enforced.
In the light of what was happening then viz other neighbours like Sri Lanka, and adding on Maldives and Bhutan just now, it has had disastrous consequences both for India’s bilateral relations with each of these neighbours, reviving official apprehensions and re-fuelling and re-energising anti-India sections of the nations’ polity and civil society.
Nepali Congress embarrassed?
Independent of the content and controversies surrounding the new Constitution, it is anybody’s guess why India had to wait almost until the last-minute, and literally so, to talk to the Nepalese stake-holders on the subject. The statute had been mired in controversies locally for years now, and even the average man on the Nepalese street should be feeling relieved that their polity and political administration could re-start from where they had left from the end of the Maoist militancy and the consequent end of monarchy.
The nation’s polity itself should have felt relieved that they need not have to get bogged down by the unending statute-making process anymore and any longer. Among them is the traditionally pro-India, Nepali Congress. The new and delayed Indian move should have also embarrassed the party, which is still unsure of itself in these years after the mainstreaming of the Maoists. Any Indian engagement on the Madhesis’ concerns should not thus have been made to look like a repeat of India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s decades-old ethnic issue, to say the least.
It is nobody’s case that the Madhesis and other affected stake-holders in Nepal do not have a case. But it should not have been India’s bidding to tell a ‘sovereign’ nation what to do with their internal affairs. Yes, there are consequences for India’s security and stability, particularly along the border-States; any internal disturbances of unmanageable and unwelcome kind in the border areas of Nepal could lead to possible influx of Madhesi and other affected populations across the border.
Among the States bordering Nepal, Bihar is facing Assembly polls too. If it had been India’s argument that the proclamation and promulgation of Nepal’s new Constitution should be deferred at least until the Bihar polls were over, again it’s untenable. However, the last-minute Indian bid to press the Madhesis’ case with Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s failed visit to Kathmandhu may have a message of its own. In its time, apart from pressing career diplomats take up issues of Constitution-making and bilateral relations with Nepalese stake-holders, the erstwhile Manmohan Singh Government had also used the good offices of individual political leaders like CPM’s Sitaram Yechury.
Taking up with the UN
The fact that the Nepalese Government had taken up what they call the ‘Indian blockade’ with the UN should show how far they are ready to travel away from India over this issue. In a way, the Nepalese move at the UN and their envoy in Delhi going to the Indian media all tantamount to a slap on the Indian face. In all this noise, the Indian claims that the Government had nothing to do with the non-movement of trucks with essential supplies to the Himalayan nation does not seem to have even got adequate coverage in the India media – leave alone among the affected Nepalese population.
It’s anybody’s guess why in the face of the truckers’ apprehensions about the safety of their vehicles, goods and men in the disturbed border areas of Nepal, India did not think of air-lifting the essentials. It is equally inexplicable why Nepal too did not seem to have proposed the modus. In the hindsight it would look as if both sides were not too keen on de-escalating avoidable tensions that were bound to mount, in the face of the non-movement of trucks and goods from India to Nepal.
It would look more so considering the recent experience of India pressing the IAF, medical teams, men and material, to assist Nepal in a very big way after the disastrous Himalayan earthquake. Memories of the same are too recent for anyone to have forgotten – least of all, the political leaderships and policy-makers in the two nations. A repeat just now would have brought in clear benefits to all stake-holders.
While the benefits for the Nepali people, polity and Government leadership is obvious, it would have also helped India to delineate genuine concerns from purported pressure-tactics of any blockade kind. India could have even scored a few brownie points among the people, polity and policy-makers in Nepal, for them to listen to India’s case with respect to the Madesis in a better mind-frame.
This is not the first time such a thing has happened nor might it be the last. At the height of the devastating Nepal earthquake not very long ago India air-lifted all aid and assistance to the affected people and their apprehensive Government, without any loss of time. Yet, the PR-driven Government leadership and machinery on the one hand and a national media starved off substance blew the ‘IAF advantage’ by their over-kill. Today, when India is seen as denying Nepal food and medicines owing to purported differences over their Constitution-making, the local sentiments can swing to further and farther extremes, or even more.
Why get involved?
It is anybody’s guess why India wanted to get directly involved in the domestic controversies surrounding Nepal’s Constitution-making processes. India does not have a situation as it had evolved in the then East Pakistan of the early seventies to consider getting involved in any which way – military-engagement could have been even not remotely on any Indian mind. India’s Eighties’ engagement with southern Sri Lanka has showed the failure of Indian politics and diplomacy – and it holds for most part to date.
The fact is that India has not found enough time to study, understand and assimilate the nuances of domestic issues and concerns in and of individual nations in its immediate neighbourhood. It does not have the energy, inclination, time or even trained personnel, who could be put continuously on the job. Indian polity is ill-informed, and the bureaucracy and policy-makers take a turns-table at every posting, for a maximum of three years – fire-fighting all the time.
Political and diplomatic Delhi that readily acknowledges that a certain move cannot be taken forward beyond a point with the US or the UK, Russia or China, because their legislature, polity or select sections of the domestic constituencies would not accept it, but it has not yet recognised these challenges vis-à-vis its neighbourhing nations. Neighbours see it not only as an infringement of their sovereignty – which alone small nations have to hedge all the time vis-à-vis the bigger one—particularly those that are the closest to them.
To them it’s also a reflection of India’s casual and taken-for-granted approach towards them. It is another matter that they too do not want to address India’s genuine concerns the way they should be – but then that is how the neighbourhood cookie crumbles; more so in South Asia.
India has been instead following the western method of reducing domestic issues and concerns elsewhere to the ‘lowest common multiplier’ that it’s capable of understanding, or appreciating – and has built solutions for their problems, based on such understanding or misunderstanding as the case maybe.
Suffice is to point out that despite the growing demands on India from and in the South Asian neighbourhood, there is no senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to take charge – and take crucial and critical decisions, full-time. Without casting aspersions on the capabilities of individuals who have had held the high office of Foreign Secretary, it should be admitted that the direct care that he or she had given to the neighbourhood cannot hold any more. The Foreign Secretary’s tray itself is full with a lot more of non-traditional issues such as energy and environmental security.
It does not stop with the bureaucracy. The Minister of State often in charge of the neighbourhood hardly wields any authority or power. Visiting counterparts often want to meet up only with the External Affairs Minister, not anyone below like a MoS-MEA-South Asia however substantive discussions they may have had and substantive decisions they could have taken. In a protocol-conscious diplomatic world, it amounts to downgrading the visitor and his or her nation in the eyes of the rest of the world, and their own nation(s).
Yet, basic issues remain. Neighbours have often accused India of not being adequately sensitive to their expectations, demands and requirements. It is only half-true at best, but smaller nations tend to make bigger issue of their larger neighbour’s influence, interference and intentions – and Indian sensibilities have not adjusted to the fact and tenet, wholly.
It was thus in recent times, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka blamed Indian intelligence agencies for his poll-defeat. In a tongue-in-cheek statement, Maldivian authorities were reported to have said that they were not extending a separate invitation to PM Modi for their Golden Jubilee Independence Day celebrations as an invite for his visit was already pending – and he was free to take his decision. Last year’s Bhutan parliamentary polls witnessed complaints of India delaying petroleum products-supply to influence voters.
It’s not as if the charges were true. Yet, political and administrative India has done little to deny such charges and also erase memories of such charges which tend to linger in small nation memories for a much, much longer time. Worse still, not only the parties affected by the so-called Indian ‘interference’ in their internal affairs, recall such episodes years and decades later, even the purported beneficiaries of such episodes and escapades, do so. “If you could do it to them at that time, you could do it to us, at any time of your choosing,” is the common refrain on such occasions!
Nepal is only a symptom. So are Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan. That leaves only Bangladesh among the non-Pakistan South Asian neighbours with whom we share a border. India needs to revisit and revise Neighbourhood Policy in consonance with the larger role it wants to play in the global arena, and the more decisive responsibilities it would have to undertake in the “traditional sphere of India’s influence”. It cannot wait either if India is serious about re-packaging its global relevance, purpose and imagery. All good things have to begin at home – and South Asia and South Asia alone is India’s home, though the rest of the world too could be Indians’ homes!
*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected]