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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

India must engage with Nepal — without intervening

The safeguarding of India’s vital interests demands it. A hands-off policy will only create space for other external influences.

Written by Shyam Saran |
Updated: May 29, 2021 9:10:29 am
Prime Minister KP Oli has delivered on the longstanding Madhesi demand to reverse a constitutional provision which denied citizenship to children born of Nepali mothers who had foreign husbands. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The game of musical chairs on Nepal’s political stage continues. For the second time in weeks, Prime Minister K P Oli has persuaded President Bidya Devi Bhandari to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections, which will now be held on November 12 and 19. That is, unless the Supreme Court decides to declare the dissolution of parliament as unconstitutional, as it had done in its judgement of February 22 this year.

The current dissolution has been challenged in the court by five political parties, including the Nepali Congress, the Maoist Centre (led by Prachanda), the Janata Samajbadi Party, JSP (the faction led by Madhesi leader Upendra Yadav and former Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai) and several dissidents from Oli’s own UML party. A faction of the JSP led by another Madhesi leader, Mahanta Thakur, has supported Oli in return for being promised seven ministerial berths. Oli has also delivered on the longstanding Madhesi demand to reverse a constitutional provision which denied citizenship to children born of Nepali mothers who had foreign husbands. This directly targeted the Madhesi population, which has close kinship and marital ties across the border with India. Oli had supported this provision saying that its absence would allow Indians to marry Nepali women and have their children become Nepali citizens. While this provision has now been removed through a presidential ordinance, it could well be reversed in future. After all, Nepali political parties dominated by the higher caste Nepalis from the hills, the so-called Paharis, had set aside their political differences to bring about constitutional amendments, overnight, to dilute certain key provisions which reversed the age-old discrimination against the Madhesis and other ethnic groups. The widespread unrest in the Terai adjoining India in 2015 was triggered by this blatant attempt to deny equal rights to the Madhesi population. The current ordinance will make the Madhesis happy, but it could turn out to be a reversible tactical gain if and when Oli is dethroned.

Political uncertainty in a neighbouring country is never good news for India, particularly in Nepal with whom we share a long and open border. Kathmandu is always the hotbed of fevered conspiracy theories, most of which implicate India without any tangible basis. India cannot but be engaged politically with events in Nepal, but engagement is not the same as intervention. This distinction is lost in Nepal’s political discourse, which tracks with microscopic attention who is up, who is down, who is the current Delhi favourite and who is not. From an Indian perspective, it may seem that no matter what India does, its credentials will always be suspect. At the present juncture, political and public opinion in Kathmandu, if not in the whole of Nepal, is convinced that Oli is now India’s favourite, that he has promised the BJP government in Delhi that he will promote the return of Nepal to its Hindu rashtra status under the monarchy and keep the Chinese at bay. Some rumours even claim that India is working to bring back the monarchy to Nepal. The statements of certain RSS and VHP leaders supporting the return of monarchy are cited as inconvertible proof. The recent visit of the former king Gyanendra and his wife to the Kumbh festival in Haridwar gave impetus to such speculation. The Indian government has maintained a studied silence on the current political developments in Nepal and this may be the right thing to do. But this silence should not imply the lack of a proper assessment of the political situation in Nepal and what would serve the interests of India best.

I learnt quite a few lessons from my assignment as India’s ambassador to Nepal (2002-04) and later by being involved with Nepal affairs as Foreign Secretary (2004-06). While the situation is very different from that period, certain learnings remain relevant.

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One, the monarchy in Nepal, at least since King Mahendra’s accession in 1955, has always tried to distance Nepal from India and promoted a nationalism which takes hostility to India as its main driver. The abolition of the monarchy is a net gain for India and the government must firmly and unambiguously declare that it does not support the revival of the monarchy, which has already been rejected by its people. The people of Nepal have won their democracy after a long and bitter struggle. India should declare its unconditional support to Nepal’s republican democracy.

Two, India should remain fully engaged with Nepal at all levels and across the political spectrum. The safeguarding of India’s vital interests demands such sustained engagement. A hands-off policy will only create space for other external influences, some of which, like China, may prove to be hostile. However, engagement must dispense with the recurrent tendency to label Nepali political leaders as friends or enemies. This only encourages political opportunism such as we witness in the cynical behaviour of Oli. In my experience, this has always proved to be counter-productive whatever limited and temporary tactical gains may be perceived. One should advocate policies rather than persons.

Three, in India’s engagement with Nepal, the Terai belt and its large Madhesi population plays a critical and indispensable role. In an effort to win over the Kathmandu political and social elite, one should be careful not to mimic this elite’s disdain for its fellow citizens living in the plains. Our engagement with Nepal must find an important place for Nepali citizens who are our immediate neighbours and act as a kinship, cultural and religious bridge between our two countries. If there is contrived hostility towards India in the Kathmandu elite, there is a widespread feeling of neglect among the Madhesi population. This extends to Nepal’s other ethnic groups as well.

Finally, India needs to appreciate that the people-to-people links between our two countries have an unmatched density and no other country, including China, enjoys this asset. The challenge to our Nepal policy lies in leveraging this precious asset to ensure a stable and mutually-productive state-to-state relationship. It has been my experience that people-to-people relationships, including longstanding religious and cultural links, cannot be a substitute for sensible state-to-state relations. But they can be a powerful instrument, if properly used, to enhance the latter. India has every reason to approach its relations with Nepal with confidence and assurance. This is possible and more than that, acutely necessary.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 29, 2021, under the title ‘A fine balance in Nepal’. The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR

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