India and Nepal must build on their unique political, social and economic ties

For India, Nepal is the “Punya Bhoomi”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi often reminds us.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: November 1, 2016 8:30 am
Narendra Modi, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prachanda, Nepal-India Talks, Nepal india relation, express column For India, Nepal is the “Punya Bhoomi”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi often reminds us.

As the first Indian president to visit Nepal in nearly two decades, Pranab Mukherjee would want to bring the healing touch to a relationship that has come under considerable recent stress. Putting the tensions behind is only one part of Mukherjee’s diplomatic assignment. It is also about looking to the future and laying out a road map for the modernisation of a very unique partnership.

For India, Nepal is the “Punya Bhoomi”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi often reminds us. Nepal’s sacred geography is a living repository of the Subcontinent’s spiritual heritage. For Nepal, India is the vast economic hinterland and may well be called its “Karma Bhoomi”. If their destinies are inseparably intertwined, problems have often arisen whenever Delhi or Kathmandu has acted against the logic of extraordinary interdependence.

If proponents of identity politics in Kathmandu have emphasised the “separateness” of Nepal, big power chauvinism in Delhi has often inflamed Nepali nationalism. Those in Nepal who seek to enforce a divide between Kathmandu and Delhi in the name of sovereignty do not acknowledge Delhi’s conscious limitation of its sovereignty.

Consider, for example, the fact that India offers the citizens of Nepal national treatment on its soil. Nepalese are free to come and work in India including in its Central government services. India will not offer this to any other country, nor would Nepal get it from anyone else. This arrangement, of course, is unilateral. Nepal does not offer national treatment to Indian citizens. Nepal on its part allows its citizens to serve in large numbers in the Indian army. This is the kind of intimacy that you rarely see between any two nations.

Delhi’s too deep an involvement in Nepal’s internal affairs is indeed a problem. India’s frequent political interventions fuel the demands in Nepal for breaking the interdependence. Delhi must learn to resist the temptation to meddle in Nepal’s political processes. Frequent interventions, in pursuit of tactical goals, damage India’s strategic interests in Nepal.

There is a flip side to India’s interventions. The special access of Nepal’s elite to different sections of the Indian establishment — from erstwhile princes to communists and security agencies to godmen — means every political churn in Nepal has its resonance in India. Every political faction in Nepal believes it has allies in Delhi.

Nepal’s internal divisions make its political classes seek Delhi’s intervention in their favour and resent it when the Indian moves help their opponents. If Nepal has a settled constitutional framework and its elites share power on that basis and ensure peaceful political transitions, Delhi will have no reason for injecting itself into its internal disputes. Besides Kathmandu, President Mukherjee is visiting Janakpur in Terai where the Madhesis are fighting for their rights. Mukherjee must encourage both sides to resolve the current political disputes and close the internal ranks.

The messiness on the political front, however, masks the larger economic failures of Kathmandu and Delhi. If geography makes Delhi the most important economic partner for Kathmandu, Nepali leaders have often politicised commercial cooperation with India at great costs to the people. Delhi, which must take the larger share of the blame, has had no economic imagination beyond formal aid projects that increasingly ran into political resistance from the Left in Nepal.

While Delhi’s political classes see Nepal as a mere extension of India and the security establishment views the northern neighbour as part of India’s exclusive sphere of influence, the economic decision makers have treated Nepal as a separate sovereign entity. Delhi’s economic separatists have done more damage to the relationship than the political separatists in Nepal.

The prickliness of India’s international economic engagement was translated in full measure to Nepal. Those in Delhi emphasising self-reliance had little appreciation for the value of trading with neighbours. They allowed the border infrastructure to deteriorate and turned an open frontier into a huge barrier for trade and commerce. In the last two decades, India has indeed talked about regionalism and connectivity; but progress has been very slow.

The Modi government has promised to change this; President Mukherjee has the opportunity to signal that India is now ready to advance the economic relationship with Nepal. This can’t be just about getting Delhi’s act together on implementing major infrastructure projects. It is also about changing the nature of the frontier through trade facilitation, simplifying transit arrangements, removing non-tariff barriers, improving transborder roads, improving the ease of business for Nepali enterprises and making life easier for Nepali citizens working in India.

For all the political efforts in Kathmandu to construct a political symmetry between relations with Delhi and Beijing, the logic of economic geography tilts Nepal massively towards India. If Delhi has allowed this advantage to dissipate over the decades, Beijing is trying to overcome its geographic disadvantage through mega projects like the Tibet Railway. But Nepal’s nearest ports will always be in India and the Gangetic plain will remain its largest market. If only Delhi respects the logic of its profound interdependence with Kathmandu and acts in tune with it, it would have fewer reasons to worry about China’s rising profile in Nepal.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline “Raja Mandala: The logic of interdependence”)

The writer is a director, Carnegie India, Delhi and consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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    Abhisek Verma
    Nov 1, 2016 at 11:45 am
    The piece is insightful and is in detail. However, given the geography, trans-border connectivity also requires vigilance by both sides. This to my sense is not touched in the piece.
    1. B
      Bihari Krishna
      Nov 1, 2016 at 3:49 pm
      While Nepal is a part of south Asia, she is also a buffer state between the two major economies, China and India. Therefore, her aspiration is to interact with both the economies as densely as possible for her own utmost advantage that, in turn, requires her to pursue a policy of equi-proximity with both of them. This is what India must appreciate in her dealings with her Himalayan neighbour and that would require her to abandon the Indian version of the age-old Monroe doctrine and her claim to so-called India's sphere of influence. To that end, she must dissuade herself from such egregious steps like her recent attempt at dictating her own terms in Nepal's nascent consution failing which she also resorted to the barbaric measure of blockading Nepal for nearly half a year .Also to be noted is the fact that India had sent her foreign secretary as her special emissary on its eve. But the diplomat that he was supposed to be by profession behaved in Kathmandu more like a lord visiting his fiefdom in seventeenth century Britain. It is this atude that has to change. India's own NITI Ayog too has recently prescribed for India to work more closely with China in the former's bid to make it a $10 trillion economy by 2030, and surely, her shortest route to China will have to be through Nepal. This is the agenda visiting Indian President Mukherjee must contribute to.
      1. B
        Nov 1, 2016 at 2:03 am
        Mohan, get your facts right: Nepal allows Indians to work on Nepali soil -- from scavengers to carpenters/construction workers to tailors to pan sellers to small and big businesspeople. Just as Nepalese are free to cross the border to go to India, so are Indians to cross the border and come to Nepal.
        1. B
          Nov 1, 2016 at 2:04 am
          What a conuous omission: no mention of the blockade.
          1. D
            Damaru Prasad
            Nov 1, 2016 at 5:47 am
            There is more pontification than journalism here. Oh yes with friend like India, Nepalese do not need any enemies. Who does not know Mukherjee is the resource person on the infamous Project Nepal undertaken not only to Balkaize Nepal but also get hold of its water resources, among others. And media commentators are mere pimps of the political cl and come up with propaist material like this. In what is objectionable Mukherjeee is also travelling to Janakpur to show support to proxy political outfits espousing Indian political agenda. Nepal is certainly in the throes of historical crises in dealing with India.
            1. G
              Gokul Pokhrel
              Nov 1, 2016 at 5:54 am
              The write-up is well balanced and presents an objective analysis on what is desirable to forge closer and trust- worthy relationship between Nepal and India. lt;br/gt;In fact economic benefits aND improvement in the living of Nepalese people can be a strong and reliable pillar of Nepal India relations.
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                Bhai Yetohadhai
                Nov 1, 2016 at 1:49 pm
                No where we can see the poverty of vision of Indian foreign policy establishment as in case of Nepal.Writer correctly points out that India has geographical advantage that China can never has.Only if we use it for the betterment of the two countries.I hope Indian government acts sooner rather than later on connectivity and cross border trade and transit.
                1. K
                  Nov 2, 2016 at 2:16 am
                  This is a very interesting article based on the ground reality. Nepal needs to move close with India to achieve higher economic growth. For this, India needs to support in expanding in border roads and opening the river navigation to reach the sea. Nepal and India both will benefit a lot by using the Ganga River for navigation. This will also open the road to build the projects like Kosi high dam. However, the difficulty is that Nepal has already lost factor of stability in the country and the country is now under rag tag communist parties which see the anti-Indian slogan as their basis for survival. Of course, the economic nationalism is more powerful than the traditional version of sovereignty and nationalism. However, there are number of chauvinist nationalists in both the countries who don’t care much about economic prosperity rather than rhetoric. As India is a big country, it needs to take initiation.
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