The overnight visit to Nepal by India’s Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar was an effort to reboot relations with Nepal, deeply wounded by New Delhi’s five-month border blockade in 2015. India never acknowledged it as a blockade, and effectively pushed the narrative that it was an internal Nepal problem. But the truth eventually got out.
A BJP leader for the first time has publicly acknowledged it was a “foolish thing” to do. During a visit to Kathmandu last month, senior BJP leader Subramaniyam Swami was quoted as saying the blockade had been carried out “on the advice of bureaucrats”, and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was now addressing the “hurt feelings” among Nepalis.
That could have been what Jaishankar was trying to do in Kathmandu, with Pashupati chandan conspicuous on his forehead all day Thursday. In meetings with Nepali leaders across the political spectrum, his message was that India wanted to re-establish a “new era of partnership” with Nepal. That is a desirable sentiment, and Nepal should respond in kind. After all, we can choose our friends, but not our neighbours.
If resetting ties was the intention, however, perhaps Jaishankar was the wrong person to send to Kathmandu. Nepal’s public sphere and the press this week were replete with references to his previous visit here exactly four years ago. Nepal had just suffered a devastating earthquake, and the government was trying to fast track the new Constitution even though it did not satisfy the demands of Madhesi activists. Ensuing violence in the Tarai claimed 56 lives.
We know now that Jaishankar was rather blunt in his sometimes heated meetings with Nepal’s leaders, who refused to listen to his suggestion to postpone the Constitution by two weeks. Soon after he flew back to New Delhi, border checkpoints with India were sealed. The blockade lasted till January 2016 – imports of fuel, food and essentials stopped, as did earthquake relief.
Jaishankar’s return this week was for many a bitter reminder of 2015. A hashtag campaign on the Nepali Twittersphere did not exactly go viral, but got irreverent shares. Jaishankar brought a message from Prime Minister Modi to Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli that said he wanted India-Nepal relations to reflect the ‘closeness and affinity’ between the two peoples.
The message added that leaders of the two countries trust each other, and they should build on this to complete past cooperation agreements that are languishing. They should move ahead in the spirit of mutual benefit. Oli reportedly reciprocated the sentiments and promised to work together to restore ties.
What was left unsaid was New Delhi trying to get public support for its actions in Kashmir from the neighbourhood. In fact some Indian outlets misleadingly reported that all of India’s neighbours had done so, when they hadn’t. If they value stability in Nepal, BJP leaders in India must also refrain from trying to pressure Nepal on its secular Constitution. We crossed that bridge, and there is no going back.
Although the formal reason for this visit was a meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission, attention throughout the two days was elsewhere. For example, the bilateral Eminent Person’s Group that presented its report last year recommending reform in ties and amendments to the 1950 Rana-era, India-Nepal friendship treaty is still in limbo.
It is also not in Nepal’s national interest to keep rocking the boat, and irritating New Delhi. It may be tempting at election time, and Prime Minister Oli did cash in on anti-Indian sentiment after the blockade for his landslide in the 2017 elections, but he more than anyone else, should know that this is counterproductive. Leaders in Kathmandu never really made an effort to understand India’s security sensitivities, and its need for regulating water from our rivers.
Nepal’s strategy in dealing with its larger neighbour should be guided by pragmatism, and not petulant stubbornness. We should do our homework before negotiations and work in the spirit of give and take. On the other hand, Indian leaders must also realise that heavy-handedness has never worked. Under-handedness also does not because ultimately it will hurt India.
India’s rulers may have behaved like boors in the past, but our own nationalistic bravado is not backed up by an ability to stand on our own feet. A state may be weak, but it must compensate for its smallness with smarts. We must fix our domestic issues ourselves, and understand Indian concerns to negotiate for the concessions we need.
10 years ago this week
The factional fighting in the NCP this week has seen a re-alignment. Sound familiar? Here is the Backside column by the Ass from Nepali Times #465 of 7-13 August 2009:
‘JNK now thinks he’s waited long enough and is making his move against MKN and KPO. In so doing, he is either knowingly or unknowingly playing right into the hands of the Mau Mau, who can only get into govt if they manage to split the Eh-Malaise. The party is already running parallel district committees with pro and anti-JN cliques. With Upadro Yadav and Jhallu both speaking Maoist lingo, it is pretty clear what PKD meant by "strategic offensive" before he jetted off to the Woolwich Town Hall.
PKD is off to Moscow, where he will meet Comrade Vladimir Ilyich in his mausoleum. But a pilgrimage to Georgia to pay respects to Uncle Joe’s birthplace was scrapped because Russia is massing troops for another putsch into Georgia. It’s a good thing PKD has gone to the Land Where Communism Collapsed. Maybe it’ll be an eye-opener.’