February 19, 2016 Sujeev Shakya

Bilateral Mishap: A View From Nepal

India has a lot to do to rebuild its relationship with Nepal. Nepali Prime Minister K. P. Oli visits India this week with a jumbo delegation at a time when Nepal-India ties have plunged to their lowest point in recent history. India had just shored up its image in Nepal with two successful visits of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August and November of 2014, followed by unprecedented support in the relief and rescue efforts after the April 2015 earthquake. But the warmth chilled by September 2015, with the announcement of a new constitution in Nepal and an “informal” blockade on trucks heading across India’s border with Nepal.

Nepal officially promulgated a new constitution on September 20, 2015. The constitution resulted from eight years of deliberation, and 90 percent of the constituent assembly approved the text. It was the culmination of hard-won peace in Nepal after the end of a ten-year Maoist insurgency. Nepal has seen the end of 240 years of monarchy and transitioned to a federal republic through a difficult but ultimately successful peace process that incorporated the one-time Maoist insurgents into mainstream politics.

When India merely noted the completion of Nepal’s constitution in a press statement, it was clear that New Delhi was not satisfied with the end product. Although a big achievement, contentious provisions in the new constitution triggered controversy within Nepal and attracted criticism from India. The most critical issue concerns citizenship rights. The constitution does not treat Nepali women and men equally when it comes to passing on citizenship to their children. Questions also remain over whether a foreigner naturalized as a Nepali citizen can hold political positions. Additionally, some—especially the Madhesi communities living along the border with India—are dissatisfied with the way the constitution demarcates states.

“Informal” Blockade

The Madhesis, many of whom are of Indian origin and live in the plains near the Nepal-India border, launched protests against the constitution before its adoption, as they felt their interests were not well represented in the process. Historically, Nepal has been ruled by members of what are called “the hill community” in Kathmandu. During Nepal’s transition from monarchy to federal republic, the Madhesis agitated for greater representation in the political process. Following the official release of the constitution, activists of the Madhesi community took out protests at the border and appealed to the Indian government for an intervention. From Nepal’s perspective, India obliged by tightening the border points, effectively imposing an “informal blockade,” in order to pressure Nepal into making changes to the constitution. (The Indian government denied imposing a blockade, and said that drivers feared entering areas of unrest.)

Nepal, a landlocked country, depends on Indian ports and transit routes, formalized through a bilateral transit agreement. Nepal’s biggest import is petroleum products that come through India. The choking of petroleum products and other supplies took a massive toll on Nepal, especially since the country was just recovering from the devastating earthquake. In the cold winter months, the largely hydropower-generated electricity supply experiences up to one hundred hours of disruption per week. The blockade only ended after Nepali leaders announced plans to amend the constitution to address Madhesi concerns.

Delhi Is Far Away

Before India’s capital was moved to New Delhi from Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) in 1912, the Indian government was physically closer to its neighbors to the northeast. With India’s capital now in New Delhi, India’s Himalayan neighbors appear distant not only geographically, but also in thought, culture, and economic sphere of influence.

One result is that countries such as Nepal are seen as buffer states in a strategic competition between India and China. The two fought a border war in 1962, and the border to this day remains unresolved. India watches closely to see how China’s influence may be growing in Nepal. The months of the blockade led the Nepali government to seek fuel supplies for the first time in history from China, across the far more difficult northern border terrain.

Oli’s Temporary Triumph And Days Ahead

Prime Minister Oli of the United Communist Party – United Marxist Leninist (UML) has benefitted the most from this Indian strategic mishap. The blockade gave him a platform to raise anti-India slogans—a nationalist sentiment key to political survival in Nepal. Oli leads a delicate coalition of rightists, leftists, and prominent opportunists at a moment when governance has plummeted to a historic low and corruption has risen to a historic high. The blockade led to a proliferation of black markets for fuel through networks that allegedly involved politicians, security forces, bureaucrats, and businesses. Oli knows that, after the blockade, people will turn their sights to his dismal performance.

India Needs To Recalibrate

For India, the challenge is restoring its image in Nepal. New Delhi’s repeated denials of its involvement at Nepal’s border will only add fuel to the anti-India feelings already running high in Kathmandu.

Instead, India should shift the focus of the bilateral relationship to areas where Indian states border Nepali provinces. One route is through subregional initiatives like the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) corridor, which will help link India’s Himalayan neighbors with its own states in the northeast. They are the bridge to economic integration with the Southeast Asian economies, critical to unleashing equitable economic growth in India. For this, perhaps India will need to set up a mechanism that trains specialists in the Indian Foreign Service to acquire greater knowledge of countries in the Himalayan region in order to avoid future mishaps.

India spends millions of dollars each year to support its Himalayan neighbors, and recently pledged an additional $1 billion to Nepal for earthquake recovery.  Many of India’s citizens in the northeast depend on trade and labor opportunities across the border. To move past the current mood of Nepal-India ties, India should take Oli’s visit as an opportunity to don a fresh set of lenses and make amends.

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