15 October 2015


Wednesday, 14 October 2015 | Ashok K Mehta
Given the rupture of relations between India and Nepal, besides enhanced challenge from China that is likely to be incentivised with the election of KP Oli, New Delhi should restore relations with Nepal soon

The timing of the blockade could not have been worse: Just two days away from the week-long Dussehra festival, followed 10 days later by Tihar, the two biggest festivals in Nepal. This time though, some supplies are trickling in from some of the 22 transit points, unlike in 1989, when all the entry points were closed due to a spat between King Birendra and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Then, India delayed renewing the lapsed Transit Treaty, punishing the king for clandestinely importing weapons from China. It was the ordinary Nepalese who suffered and have not forgiven India. So harsh was the penalty that the Army Chief, General VN Sharma, pleaded with Rajiv Gandhi about its adverse effect on the morale of Gorkha soldiers and their families. Earlier in 1985, during the Gorkhaland movement, the Government was acutely concerned about its impact on the serving Gorkha soldiers.
In 2005, Maoists had laid siege to the Kathmandu valley, locking it for more than a week. Choked for essential supplies, National Security Advisor JN Dixit held an emergency meeting of three Service chiefs to consider a repeat of the 1986 bread-bombing of Jaffna. Kathmandu was contacted but it said, ‘No, thank you’.

This time around, Nepal has been quietly defiant, looking up, as in 1989, to China where two border points Tatopani and Rasua have been activated. Aviation fuel is being airlifted and the Government has tendered for petroleum products from abroad. While Nepal is blaming India for squeezing the border, New Delhi is disingenuously attributing the disruption to Madhesi resentment over the iniquitous new Constitution.
Anti-India sentiment is a seasonal phenomenon. Before the advent of multi-party democracy, it was blamed on monarchy for creating sovereign space. Now it is mainly the non-mainstreamed Maoists like the Mohan Baidya and Netra Bikram Chand groups which carry the can. But sections of other parties and civil society have also joined the bandwagon, angry with New Delhi’s last minute demand to amend the Constitution.

A torrent of nationalism engulfed the media, lambasting India, with Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ saying,”We are friends of India but not its yes-men”, while an advisor to then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala emphasised Nepal’s sovereign right to make its own decisions. The anger and despair manifest in Kathmandu and other urban areas this time is different from the anti-India protests of the past triggered off by Madhuri Dixit, Hrithik Roshan and Madan Lal Khurana for what they allegedly said or did not say.

This time Nepal is demanding respect, dignity and being treated as sovereign equals. Sadly Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hypnotic charm and magic, which won the hearts and minds of Nepalis last year, has evaporated with the heat and dust of the blockade.

The genesis of the rupture of Government-to-Government relations can be traced to Mr Modi’s sage but unwelcome advice that the Constitution must be based on consensus. The next trigger was the 16-point agreement after the earthquake between the four political parties (Big four) on June 8, to set aside residual differences over the Constitution, which came as a big surprise for India. In other words, India was not involved in forging the consensus.

On August 8, the Big four revealed a six-State map, later increased to seven States, which tore up the Madhesi and Tharu aspirations of autonomy. In Kathmandu on that fateful day, this writer learnt how one of the Big Four, the effervescent Tharu leader Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar, looking at the map lamented: “Our head and feet have been chopped off.” By September 20, the Constituent Assembly had passed the 302 Articles of the Constitution and promulgated it despite India’s belated and brazen intervention.

It seems India lost the plot as its back-channel management went awry due to lack of strategic political guidance, resulting from the illusion that Mr Modi had won over Nepal for all time. New Delhi was presented a fait accompli. Agreements not assurances work in diplomacy and foreign relations, and that too at a high political level. Despatching the Foreign Secretary — after the horse had bolted from the stable — who is, after all, a bureaucrat, as Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, did not signal the urgency of the mission. Never before in the history of India-Nepal relations has a prime ministerial envoy returned empty-handed.

By its support to the Madhesis who constitute 24 per cent of the population and along with Tharus make it 31 per cent, India has alienated the majority of Nepalese. The cause is just but the methods employed not so just. The episode has sharpened the strains between Pahadis and Madhesis and corroborated the strategic linkage between Madhesis and India.

The Madhesi political consciousness was inspired by India in 2007, which led to Madhesi parties winning 84 seats in the 2008 election, making them become virtual king-makers. This advantage was frittered away, with their strength declining to 56 seats in the 2013 election; this left the Madhesis a house divided with little love lost between Tharus and Madhesis. Mr Gachchhadar is now a Deputy Prime Minister in the

new Government.

A lesson from the blockade of 2015 is to seek alternatives for succour by land and air. In 1989, Kathmandu failed to do so. In the past the Chinese told Kathmandu it cannot be a substitute for India as a source of goods, supplies and other essentials. With an economy nine times bigger than India’s and growing — with rail lines and improved communications to Nepal border and the likelihood of an oil pipeline and railway line to Kathmandu in the next five to seven years — Beijing could be in a position to ease the squeeze in Terai if not replace India as the primary source of goods. This would also depend on the political stability

in Tibet. Besides the enhanced challenge from China likely to be incentivised by the new Prime Minister, KP Oli-led Left Alliance Government, ideologically ill-disposed to India and the Madhesis, the priority for New Delhi is to restore relations with the people of Nepal.

Achievements of Operation Maitri and Mr Modi’s famous ‘hamare sambandh dilon ki dastan kahte hain’ in Nepal Parliament must not be lost. For Mr Oli, the first task must be to expedite the passage of the constitutional amendments which he has held back. This will lift the blockade and bring cheer to Nepalis suffering from the 60-day protests in the Terai. Nothing like a happy Dasain and Tihar for what is left of 2015.

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