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”)