Last week’s air dash to Kathmandu by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj can be analysed at two levels: what was officially stated as the purpose of the visit, and its probable real purpose.
“We have come to meet our friends. We don’t have any agenda,” Swaraj stressed upon arrival in Kathmandu on 1 February. But in conspiracy-minded Kathmandu, the rumour mills were on overdrive about what the southern neighbour was up to, or to be more specific, what her boss Prime Minister Narendra Modi had up his sleeves.
There is only one word to describe Modi’s strategy: being unpredictable. And that has more significance for its consequences on India itself, than for us in Nepal.
Swaraj was here a few days after Modi had called up Prime Minister-in-waiting KP Oli, his second call since Nepal’s elections. This is interesting because Oli was prime minister when India imposed a border blockade on Nepal for nearly six months in 2015 – wrecking the economy and delaying delivery of earthquake relief.
Modi had visited Nepal immediately after assuming office in 2014. He won hearts and minds here by his sweepingly benevolent speech to Parliament. A year later, when the earthquake struck, Modi was the first to rush Air Force helicopters to deliver relief supplies to remote areas. But soon, the Nepal handlers at South Block decided to punish Nepal with a Blockade for rushing a constitution which they were not happy about.
Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishanker’s ill timed visit to Kathmandu in September 2015 and its unfortunate consequences led to the third blockade of Nepal by independent India.
Internationally, perception management was carried out effectively. New Delhi had learnt from the 1990 blockade how to control the messaging, and leveraged its geopolitical clout to force the whole world to look the other way. All this was completely counterproductive because on the ground, where it mattered the most, the arm-twisting just made Nepalis angrier.
As prime minister, Oli gave that fight a face, character and spirit. He magnified the significance of his outreach to China to spook the Indian media. Alarmed by self-amplified coverage that Nepal was being pushed into the Chinese fold, New Delhi lifted the blockade in January 2016. Nepalis celebrated not just the end of the shortages, but also the belief that we had stood our ground. Modi lost more in Nepal than he had gained for India.
In the love-hate feelings for India, the Blockade pushed the balance more towards hate, and undoing that is going to take decades. Modi is now on fence-mending mode, and is aiming to start from where he left off with the cancelled visit to Janakpur in 2015. There are many lessons for India’s foreign policy establishment as it now tackles similar crises with its other neighbours.
‘At the beginning of the era of independence, by way of a foreign policy establishment, India had only Jawaharlal Nehru,” writes M K Rasgotra in his book, A Life in Diplomacy, “The world listened to him with attention because his ideas was the voice of an India which the modern world had not heard of for two hundred years.”
For Nehru, India’s foreign policy was a means of making India’s presence felt in the world. Not only had Nehru claimed the grandiose role of an idealist global leader committed to non-alignment, he had also imagined an India that provided an all encompassing guardianship to its neighbours.
Nirad C Chaudhary wrote in 1952 that it was because of Nehru that India, a country without ‘material, men or money’ had gained a position of credibility. ‘India’s word was listened to with respect in the councils of the great.’
While Nehru was aggressively championing Asia’s resurgence, China invaded and annexed Tibet. In Parliament Nehru expressed his hope that the matter would be ‘resolved peacefully’. He felt India had ‘to be careful not to overdo’ criticism of a neighbouring country that was also emerging from domination.
Under Nehru’s leadership, a commitment to idealism, restraint, ‘avoiding a flashy role in international affairs’, and ‘sincerity of purpose’ were the keys to early India’s grandstanding, and that worked.
Modi has made no secret that his aim is to wipe out the Gandhi-Nehru legacy in almost everything in India. But some settling of scores can go too far, the lessons can become too costly and the damage irreparable. A rising and belligerent China aggressively rearranging the global balance of power should precisely be the reason to make Modi’s India more cautious in selecting the tools to deal with its neighbours.
And Nepal’s leaders also need to be mature enough to understand that in real politik there can be no permanent enemies or friends.