Jun 5, 2012

Reflections on Nepal India relations

By Gopal Thapa   

Indian diplomacy in Nepal is marked by a great deal of Dr. Jackyl and Mr. Hyde character.  Her diplomats have been consistently found showing us   their twin faces, the public and the private one. In the public, they are smart to apply all the available sweet adjectives that can best describe Nepal-India relations. Their conduct in private, however, has always failed to conform to what they say in the public.

There are several examples. Let me, however, cite a highly provocative remarks recently made by a Birgunj-based Indian diplomat. Interestingly,  his remarks  came the very next day of the consensus the four major political parties had reportedly  reached on the outstanding issues on  the number , nature and nomenclature of  federal   provinces!,  Such an extremely incendiary statement couldn’t have been better timed! Nothing can be more open and brazen example of a diplomat poking his nose unwarrantedly into the internal matters of another country!

A lot has already been said and written against his remarks. I would, therefore, refrain from being repetitive. Why would India and the Indian Foreign Ministry diplomats often chose to make such open and undiplomatic interferences time and again into our internal affairs, when they know that such undiplomatic behaviors would only bring enormous strain on our relations.

Possible actors
One of the two constant actors that have held –up Nepal-India relations graduating from the more than six decades of mistrust and apprehension has been the Indian bureaucracy in the MOEA.

The Indian external ministry’s officials continue to operate under the colonial mindset and hangover as far as their dealings with Nepal are concerned.  The aspirations and expectations of the Nepalese people have never found true resonance, let alone favor.  Large-heartedness, tolerance and understanding are nowhere to be seen on the part of India, commensurate with its size.

No wonder, late Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography advises India to rise above its “baniyagiri mentality” to be able to exercise its influence internationally!

Indian attitude has always been one of   intolerance, arrogance and dominating toward any of its neighbors that wish to dare to exhibit independent thinking.  Skilled in diplomatic sophistry, these officials in the case of Nepal, when confronted, often have instant and one common response: A peaceful, prosperous and stable Nepal is always in India’s interest. What polity and form of government is good for Nepal, it is up to the people of Nepal to decide upon. But when seen in application, these promises end up becoming a mere lip service.

No less culpable are the intellectually pauper, and morally depraved Nepalese politicians in power.  Praising India to the sky when things are favorable to them and condemning it when they lose favor has been the hallmark of our politicians, since the post-90 periods to-date.

Their inability to rise above their personal interests and lack of a bold and informed engagement with India is one of the principal factors. In private, most of our political leaders have been found more than willing to rub soldier with Indian diplomats seeking their favors, which make them morally weak and incapable of showing courage of conviction.

Nepal at this point in time is like a house divided; it is a country with unstable political system and constantly bickering and genuflecting politicians at the helm of power. This kind of unsettling political ambience in any country would provide a fertile ground for foreign meddling, not only for India, but also for others as well.
Nepal- India relations have always alternated between high and low periods.   Our relations, because of their extensive and intensive characters, have had “worst of times and best of times”, if I may borrow the phrase from Charles Dickens-the famous 17th century. British novelist.

India’s contributions to Nepal’s socio-economic development, including ushering in democracy are indeed immense.    However, because of its dual character, that is saying one thing and meaning one thing, there is as much bitterness and mistrust as the goodwill amongst the Nepalese people for India. This perhaps is one of the profound dilemmas of our bilateral relations.

For this scribe too, having served for more than three decades in the Foreign Ministry and having had the opportunity of close interaction with the Indian diplomats in the Ministry, at the various bilateral meetings and negotiations and on assignments at our diplomatic missions abroad, understanding the India-Nepal relations in their true scope, meaning and   intensity has always been one of the biggest dilemmas.

My mind always hovered between the two current of thoughts; is India our true and well-meaning friend as it always makes out to be outwardly, or does India want a Nepal of perpetual instability and volatility for it to hold its footage firmly on it? If India were genuinely committed to the promotion of peace, stability, democracy and prosperity of Nepal, which is also in its own larger interest then why has democracy been throttled time and again; why does peace and stability and economic prosperity continue to remain a distant dream in Nepal in spite of tremendous goodwill and enormous amount of assistance that India has poured in Nepal’s overall development?

Obsession for multiple power centers
The current general public perceptions are that the dilemma of our bilateral relations began from the period of 1950 and gradually deepened as we moved on.

The 1950 revolution put paid to the Rana oligarchy and democracy was ushered in Nepal. True, India’s role then was important   in facilitating Nepal’s maiden journey towards democracy.  It was hoped that Nepal would now march slowly but steadily toward the path of democracy, peace and progress with the help and cooperation of democratic India.

But those hopes were belied soon. Contrary to the contemporary hope, the period that followed was one of uncertainty as far as democracy strengthening efforts were concerned.  In this context, the general public perceptions seem gravitating mainly towards these points; while imperial power in India chose political stability and one regime as its preferred option, the post- independent India’s predilection appears for the opposite. Its actions seem to confirm that it saw  the creation of multiple power centers in Nepal as one of the viable options, so as to make them dance to its tune, as and when required. That policy of divide and rule continues to this day.

Late B.P Koirala’s intellectual vision and sharpness, his fierce nationalistic views and independent thinking and his outspokenness could never be palatable for Indian leaders and bureaucracy. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the contemporary Indian leaders intellectually and in political wisdom and thinking. He possessed in-depth and informed knowledge of the intricacies of Nepal- India relations, India’s genuine national interests, including also how best to promote and preserve Nepal’s independence as one of the closest neighbors of India.

But what he resented the most was India’s penchant for gratuitously poking its nose into Nepal’s domestic issues, which he never was afraid of telling straightaway to any of the Indian leaders, including Nehru.

In retrospect, perhaps no other political leaders in power are found to have similar guts and grits to those of B.P to talk straight to their Indian counterparts. Little wonder, therefore, he could never be the first choice for India to lead the post-50 democratic Nepal.

Paradigm shift
The world has changed beyond recognition since 1990. The advent of internet, free flow of capital, knowledge and goods have empowered people from the rich and the poor countries. Knowledge has now not been the exclusive prerogatives of a select few from the affluent classes as was the case some decades back, be it in India or in Nepal.

With the benefit of quality education, more and more of our younger generations have now been able to understand and interpret the value of democracy, equality, and individual freedom.  There is a saying “knowledge is nobody’s monopoly.

Education facilitates empowerment. Quality education both empowers individuals and enlightens their minds.   It empowers one with the ability of logical thinking and forming ones opinion based on sound reasoning and logics.   The new generations armed with these analytical abilities have been closely observing and interpreting Nepal-India relations in terms of their merits and worth for both countries.

Consequently, general perceptions that India is Nepal’s closest friend, a friend that has always stood by Nepal’s side in troubled times are changing gradually. Similarly, the many similarities in culture, religion and way of life long regarded as strength of enduring natures in our relations are also slowly coming into critical examination.

I think the setting into motion of   this critical thinking process is very time-suited and will prove to be in the best interest of both countries.

Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that India will continue to exercise its influence on Nepal, because of its size, growing economic and regional clout and also in the context of its vital national interest protection needs.  Our ability then would lie in understanding India’s vital national interest and managing and balancing our bilateral relations in such a manner that we are able to win their confidence while protecting and promoting our   own national interest through the display of credible and consistent behavior.

There is a saying “it takes two hands two make a clapping”.  Diplomacy is about the display of consistent and credible behavior; it is not about a mismatch between what one says and does. This is, and should be, equally applicable to countries, big or small, powerful or weak.

India and the Indian bureaucracy, on the other hand, need to discard   their Dr. Jackyll and Mr Hyde character display in its diplomatic dealings with Nepal. True to the Neharuvian spirit, India must give-up its nit-picking deportment; it must demonstrate a higher level of diplomatic honesty and sincerity in the conduct of bilateral relations in the future, in keeping with its growing international image.

(Gopal Thapa is former Chief of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at: bhimsen29@gmail.com)

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