New Delhi has shown commendable restraint in dismissing an alleged news ‘scoop’ by Pakistan Today, that Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team has concluded that the Pathankot terrorist attack was “ another False Flag” operation carried out by Indian security agencies to bring Pakistan into disrepute, and reiterating that its multi-level interaction with Islamabad to root out terrorism will continue .
But this only serves to highlight the confusion in other areas of India’s foreign policy today, for it is in stark contrast to the Modi government’s hectoring policy towards India’s other important neighbour, Nepal.
India’s 1850 km border with Nepal is not its longest but its most sensitive and indefensible one. All but a tiny fragment of the country lies south of the great Himalayan wall which has been India’s natural frontier in the north since pre-history. Thus, were any hostile power to gain ascendancy over the country, the entire Indo-Gangetic plain would be rendered defenceless.
In 1947 this possibility was remote. Nepal and India had fought much of their respective struggles for independence together. The Koirala brothers, who founded the Nepali Congress, found sanctuary from the wrath of the Ranas in North Bihar and took their cue unabashedly from Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Two years after gaining Independence, therefore, India expelled the Ranas and restored King Tribhuvana to power. Since then, for better or for worse, it has been mentoring Nepal’s transition into modern statehood.
It sheltered the leaders of the democracy movement in the eighties and nineties and helped them to force King Birendra to accept of a constitutional monarch.
Difficult to frame a Constitution
It again sheltered the democrats when King Gyanendra declared an emergency in 2005, persuaded him to restore democracy in 2006, and persuaded the Maoists to end their decade long guerrilla war and return to parliamentary democracy. Since then Nepal has been trying to frame a constitution that empowers its ethnically diverse people in an equitable way. This has proved a decade long nightmare because its 29 million people belong to no fewer than 66 ethnic groups.
By the end of 2014, protracted negotiations in two Constituent Assemblies had produced a consensus in principle. Nepal would be a federal state divided into eight regions representing eight broad ethnic groupings, and while 165 members of parliament would be elected through the simple majority voting system, 110 would be elected through proportional representation. All that was left was to demarcate the eight regions, and decide whether to adopt the constitution by a majority vote or a consensus.
India had made no secret of the importance it attached to consensus. Prime minister Modi, who had signalled the importance India attached to it’s Himalayan neighbours by making his first and second bilateral visits to Bhutan and Nepal, urged the Constituent Assembly to strive for consensus during his second visit to Nepal, in November 2014.
But the differences proved intractable. In the summer of 2015 the Constituent Assembly ran out of patience and decided to adopt the new constitution by a majority vote, leaving the demarcation of the regions to be decided later. This set off an immediate, violent, protest from two major groups in the Terai, the Madhesis and the Tharus, who feared that this was a stratagem for restoring the domination of the hill peoples over the Terai.
When, despite this, the Constituent Assembly adopted the new constitution on September 20, India had to choose between not intervening and allowing Nepal to learn from its own mistakes, or make it rethink its options by expressing its displeasure in a more concrete way. Narendra Modi chose the latter option.
Within hours Indian Oil Corporation’s tankers stopped carrying transport fuels to Nepal. From around 300 trucks and tankers a day the number dropped to between 10 and 15. In Nepal diesel, gasoline and kerosene stocks dwindled, prices shot up and a black market was instantly born. On September 23 the Nepali government imposed draconian fuel rationing, accused Delhi of imposing a blockade and, a short while later, took its complaint to the UN.
New Delhi blames Madhesi unrest
New Delhi’s spokesmen put the blame for the blockade upon the Madhesi unrest which, they claimed, had made truck drivers fear for their lives. But this was not convincing because the Madhesi agitation had begun 40 days before the fuel blockade began. What is more, the drivers of trucks carrying fruit and vegetables did not seem to share this insecurity.
Modi has been accused of imposing the blockade out of personal pique. But this trivialises a very difficult decision. Delhi understood that to enjoy legitimacy a democratic constitution had to be accepted by everybody, and not by only a majority. Ramming it down the throats of the Madhesis and Tharus without even an agreed demarcation of their regions would only exacerbate the conflict and make India’s position more difficult because of its shared ethnicity with the Terai.
New Delhi may have wanted Nepal to rethink its options, but unlike 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi’s year-long oil blockade ended absolute monarchy in Nepal, this time the cure is likely to prove worse than the disease, because the Nepali government has turned for help to China. And China now has both the capacity and the motivation, coming from its slowing economy, to help Nepal end India’s stranglehold upon it.
This became abundantly clear in the last week of March when Nepal’s prime minister, K.P.Sharma Oli paid a week-long visit to Beijing at the invitation of Chinese premier Li Keqiang. During the visit China signed a trade and transit agreement with Nepal that will enable it to trade with third countries through Tianjin, the port closest to Beijing, pledged $216 million to build an airport at Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, and to build a bridge at Hilsa in the extreme west of the country to connect it by road to Tibet.
These projects will provide considerable psychological relief to Nepal but will reduce India’s coercive power to only a limited extent. What will come close to destroying it, however , is the proposed 562 km rail link between Lhasa and Kathmandu, for Lhasa is already linked by high speed trains to the rest of China.
China’s giant infrastructure companies, which face rapidly shrinking order books, have been eyeing this gargantuan project, which requires drilling a tunnel under Mount Everest, and other giant projects, like a nine dam, 40,000 MW, power project on the Big Bend of the Yarlung-Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) , for some time. Indeed Beijing’s entire One Road One Belt policy is driven very largely by the need to keep its companies, and their vast labour force, employed.
Modi’s decision to blockade, or let the Madhesis blockade Nepal (for Kathmandu the difference is immaterial) has removed whatever inhibitions Nepal had felt till then about the rail link project.
Chinese signals to Nepal
Equally important were the political signals that Oli sent out during his visit. He described China as Nepal’s “All Weather Friend”, a pointed invocation of China’s description of Pakistan ( whom China has now raised to ‘Iron Brothers Forever’), and a reminder that India is a friend only when it suits it to be one.
He also signed a free trade agreement with China and committed Nepal to participating actively in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. These are largely symbolic gestures when more than two-thirds of its trade is with India, but they signal the end of Nepal’s acceptance of Indian bilateralism.
The Madhesis suspended their agitation at the end of February and oil began to flow to Nepal once more. But neither capital seems to have realised that the blockade, and Kathmandu’s reaction, have brought India-Nepal relations to a fork in the road. Last week, after returning to Kathmandu, Oli said that India had lifted the blockade because it had proved futile. This was not only because it had drawn a barrage of international criticism but because Nepal had not succumbed to it.
His remarks show that Oli has still not grasped what Delhi, with India’s vast experience of ethnic federalism, has understood all along — that no country can impose a Constitution upon a dissenting minority and remain a democracy for very long. The Madhesis have warned the government that they will resume their agitation in May. If Oli does not resume talks to arrive at an agreed demarcation of the eight regions before then, and relies on force again, the divide between the hills and plains of Nepal will widen further and imperil the unity of the country.
Had they been left to themselves Nepali politicians would have come to this conclusion sooner or later. But the support promised by China has given them false confidence, and lessened their awareness of danger. Modi’s faux pas has therefore pushed Nepal towards a relationship with China that could land it in the same predicament that Israel faces today. Unconditional American military , economic , technological and political support during and after the Cold War made it unnecessary for Israel to negotiate peace with its neighbours and the Palestinians when they had a chance to do so. Today the opportunity has passed: Israel faces rising terrorism, and does not know what to do.
Given the organising power of the social media, and the easy availability of arms in the black market, Kathmandu could find itself facing a similar situation in the Terai in not years but in months.
Does India want Nepal to go down this bitter road? The answer must be ‘no’. But to make it reverse tack Delhi must first stop treating Nepal as a de-facto protectorate, and help it to complete its transition to full nation-statehood. The first requirement for this is to respect Nepal’s sovereignty, scrupulously respect all treaty obligations and avoid intervening in its internal affairs.
This requires allowing its government to make, and to learn from, its own mistakes. In the immediate future, if Oli forces the Madhesis to resume their stir in May, India must still ensure that IOC’s oil tankers reach the distribution points within the country. This will involve forming convoys, cooperating with the Nepali army, and persuading the Madhesis that there are other, less destructive, ways of attaining their political goals. Delhi should remember that giving public support to the Madhesis movement can do to them exactly what Chinese support is threatening to do to Kathmandu.