January 12, 2011 Sujeev Shakya

Improving Ties

At the recently concluded seminar in Delhi, many fellow Nepalis from diverse professions came together to discuss the way forward for Nepal. The good thing about us Nepalis is that we are good conversationalists. We may disagree, wearing different organisation hats, following and prophesying different ideologies, but when we meet as fellow Nepalis, there are always loud bouts of laughter in the air. The challenge is to channel this positive energy into the larger effort of forging national consensus.

For every 10 seminars conducted in Delhi on Nepal, there is hardly one in Beijing, which Nepalis see as an alternative force in our geo-politics. We forget that we are far away from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Guangzhou. Any average Nepali can name at least 10 Indian cities, five Indian movie stars and at a bare minimum, at least 50 words in Hindi. Now take that across the border and see how many Chinese cities, actors and words in Mandarin we can utter. Our cultural proximity to India perhaps creates a relationship that is simultaneously dependent and perceived as very difficult. But, in light of the globalizing India, it is important to understand what Nepal means to a young Indian. As in many television quizzes, as people in India indicate their knowledge is limited to the capital city of Nepal or name of the Prime Minister, one can’t help wondering about the future. At times, when I talk to young Indians about Nepal, they respond with something about it being part of their parents’ generation, much the same as how Lhasa is a destination of interest only to our parents’ generation. For the truck driver with Indian license plates in Nepal, the guys harassing him at various check points form his impression of a Nepali. And for a migrant Nepali worker crossing the border into India, it is the harassing police officers that represent India. But it is not just the people in Delhi and Kathmandu who are the real Indians or the Nepalis! The path towards fostering better Nepal-India ties is to start working not only on the level of government-to-government, or business-to-business, but more at the level of people-to-people. Bonding between the people of the two countries can only cement a relationship that is sustainable. We need to understand: who is a Nepali to an Indian and who is an Indian to a Nepali.

For a country at the global economic forefront security becomes paramount. And as bureaucrats in the South Block compete for positions to look at the US, Europe or China for rewarding careers, the only Indian government interest will remain with the security agencies. For security agencies in India, Nepal is another country that can be used as conduit for terrorism or anti-India activities. The knee-jerk reaction of closing the border seems less challenging than

the work of ensuring a beneficial open border. But we need to consider the large

number of Nepalis in the Indian army who continue to die while protecting their neighbour and the mental state of an estimated 10 million Nepalis who consider India their home. What is the true cost of an open border compared to the cost of the fences that sovereign nations like to build? The challenge is not closing the border, but rather ensuring that the economic benefits of the open door are shared by both sides.

Whenever we talk about the relationship between the two countries, we always lug out our old baggage. But focusing on what went wrong in the past will not bring us closer to doing better in the future. It is about deciding how we want our relationship to be in 2020, 2030 or 2050. Will it be through a treaty that the relationship is secured, or will it be through completely different mechanisms? Will this look like just a trade and transit treaty or will there be larger arrangements where not only trade, but investments and people flow across the border with ease? Why should the Nepali government restrict Nepalis from investing in India formally, knowing very well that a lot of money informally moves south of the border without giving a cent to the state coffers? Why can’t we openly discuss making an emerging strong currency of Southasia a legal tender in Nepal too? If we are to embrace a Southasian currency, why can’t we be proactive? Why can’t we promote Indian investment in hydropower with Chinese technology that serves the Nepali and Indian market? Why don’t we understand that it is important for Nepal to look at the markets, as for Nepal the immediate market is 300 million people and for India it is just 30 million? So who should be the one to take the lead?

The opportunities are endless and the bedrock of the future of the Nepal-India relationship has to be built on economics, not politics. Since Nepal will benefit more in this relationship, Nepal should be pro-active in defining the relationship. So let’s have more trips to India to discuss the economy and spend endless hours in pleading India to intervene in Nepal’s politics.

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