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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 22 New Delhi May 21, 2016

Modi’s Nepal Conundrum

Monday 23 May 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

The India-Nepal relationship is staring at the abyss. It has been on a roller-coaster through the past two-year period of the BJP Government, and of late, hurtling down the hill uncontrollably. A tipping-point is nearing and the famous lines from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, come to mind: ‘Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for, when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes unto you.’

Who are the monsters our country is fighting in Nepal? Prima facie, it appears to be the nationality question devolving upon the Madhesi problem. But then, it ceases to be a monster the moment we refuse to regard it that way. For sure, the monster didn’t spoil Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dinner for the visiting Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena — although Colombo has not kept its word to him to resolve the Tamil problem. Simply put, the Modi Government left it to Colombo to tackle the monster as best it can and stopped being prescriptive.

The searing Sri Lanka experience is relevant because the Madhesi problem, too, is a mythical creature. It exists and becomes an issue in India-Nepal relations if we want it, not otherwise. The Indian elites traditionally co-opted the Nepali upper-class elites. The Madhesi problem came up only when the nexus broke down following Nepal’s democratic transition. In principle, India should have had no difficulty to harmonise with the new emergent elites. However, although India’s Communist Parties played a constructive role to build bridges with their Nepali comrades, and help the UPA Government to bridge the transition (which proved timely, useful and even productive), Delhi changed course with the advent of the Modi Government.

Modi is averse to taking help from ‘others’ who form part of our bourgeois democratic discourse, especially Left parties. In Nepal’s case, there was the added factor of Hindu nationalism. It is well-known that the RSS has been active on Nepal— the lone Hindu kingdom on the planet. With Modi in power, the RSS got a free hand to command our compliant bureaucracy. Rational thinking ceased when the RSS decided that Nepal should be a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

The RSS had got into the business of reorienting India’s neighbourhood policies even before Modi became the Prime Minister. It focused on Nepal, because that country is integral to the doctrine of ‘Akhand Bharat’. The BJP General Secretary, Ram Madhav, led RSS missions to Nepal, and even today, the RSS think-tank that he heads in Delhi is widely regarded as the ‘brains trust’ of the Modi Government’s foreign and security policies. This disastrous superimposition of the RSS agenda on India’s Nepal policies completely ignored the great historicity of Nepal’s political transition or the revolutionary undercurrents that threw up the present-day political forces.

To be sure, Nepal impacts India’s vital interests, and there is a security dimension to it. But then, under the Modi Government, there has been a convergence between the RSS thinking on the one hand and sections of the Indian security establishment, and even the foreign policy bureaucracy weaned on the doctrine of ‘sphere of influence’, on the other. The Indian bureaucracy has no dearth of time-servers, who are only too willing to be the doormats for the RSS. Thus, an exclusive syndicate happens to be driving or masterminding India’s Nepal policies. Modi is disinterested in seeking independent advice from outside this syndicate, leave alone build a national consensus.

It is not difficult to see why Modi’s syndicate tends to see Nepal through the prism of the troubled India-China relationship. If China’s shadow in Kathmandu has been a spectre haunting Modi’s syndicate, today the reality indeed tends to be that Chinese influence over the Nepali elites has been dramatically expanding. This is for three reasons. One, China took care to diversify its links with the emergent political forces without showing over-riding preferences or being domineering or prescriptive. Two, the Modi Government’s flawed policies alienated Nepali opinion, which in turn began viewing China as a ‘balancer’. Three, the Tibet problem is at the epicentre of China’s policies toward Nepal. This needs some explaining.

The Indian discourses generally overlook that there is a gory chapter in the chronicle of Sino-Indian ties when our country became— unwittingly, perhaps—the staging post for the US intelligence’s operations to undermine ‘communist China’, which ultimately resulted in the mayhem in Tibet, leading to the Dalai Lama’s exile. Since then, Nepal has served as a revolving door for Tibetan activists to stir up violence in China. China worked hard to close the porous border with Nepal, but cooperation from the leadership in Kathmandu becomes extremely vital. Clearly, China has found the emergent political forces during the period of democratic transition in Nepal to be cooperative partners.

China’s President Xi Jinping personally raised this issue while receiving the then Nepalese President, Ram Baran Yadav (leader of the ‘pro-India’ Nepali Congress), in March last year— interestingly, six months after the Chinese leader’s own controversial visit to India which had ended on a sour note. Xi promised Yadav all Chinese help and ‘voiced the hope that Nepal would not allow any forces to use Nepal’s territory to engage in anti-China separatist activities’.

Suffice it to say, we needn’t look far to comprehend why we are not on top of the game in Nepal today. A combination of circumstances has thwarted our attempts to create a comprador leadership in Kathmandu. China cannot be expected to have a ‘hands-off’ policy toward Nepal since its core national security interests are involved. But India does not have to be paranoid, either. Its influence by far outstrips China’s. Things narrow down to certain imperatives. First, it will be in the national interest if the RSS vacates the foreign policy arena, especially as regards Nepal and China. India has established institutions with institutional memory to conduct diplomacy and safeguard national interests. Use them optimally. Modi ought to draw a red line.

Second, a national consensus is needed on our Nepal policies. The Nepali elites without exception are known to our political leaders. Engage the broad spectrum of political opinion in our country. New thinking is needed. Most importantly, Modi should test the sincerity of the standing offer from Beijing to partner with India in the interests of Nepal’s long-term stability, eschewing the zero-sum mindset.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).