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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 23 New Delhi May 28, 2016

Biggest Foreign Policy Failure: Ties with Nepal

Sunday 29 May 2016


by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

In several ways it is conveyed that the Modi Government has performed extraordinarily well on the foreign policy front but the dark pimples are never talked about. The fact is that Modi’s South Asian foreign policy has been under stress since the day it was crafted. There are cracks in relations with Pakistan, Maldives and a big hole has been created in Indo-Nepal ties where a huge trust deficit exists.

It began since the time of the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 when it was emphasised that PM Modi had informed the Nepalese PM about the earthquake; the latter was in Thailand at that time. Along with it aid diplomacy was pressed and penetration of Indian media became excessive in Nepal; thus an adverse reaction with nationalist thoughts developed among the people and political elites in Nepal. Unfortunately the Modi Govern-ment failed to comprehend it.

The next phase started when Nepal adopted its Constitution on September 20, 2015. Indian diplomacy was intellectually at a loss; the Foreign Secretary rushed to Nepal to press for the safeguarding of Indian interests but that was just two days before the inauguration of the Constitution. India failed to convey to Nepal that the ethnic issue of Madhesis should be dealt with deftly keeping both Madhesi and Indian interests in mind. The Modi Government was never in operation during the constitutional discussion process in Nepal on these issues. The visit of the Foreign Secretary so close to the inauguration of the Constitution shows how much policy-paralysis had overtaken the MEA. Although PM Modi, during his November 2014 visit to Nepal, had warned Nepal that it should prepare its Constitution early or else it ‘may fall into difficulties’, India was never actively watchful of the swift developments there.

The introduction of the Constitution brought into sharp focus the desires of Madhesis and the confused role of India. Nepal, which had cultural and emotional bonds with India, was not in a mood to listen about Indian concerns. Why did it happen? India’s tactical support to the Madhesis and the reaction to rhetoric-based aid diplomacy were sufficient to push Nepalese politicians away from the Indian zone of influence. The Government of India was not aware that since the days of the killing of King Birendra in Nepal in June 2001, a strong anti-Indian sentiment was prevailing and Communist leader Pushpa Kumar Dahal Prachanda had succeeded in articulating this sentiment in quite an influential manner. One illustration underlines it: Prime Minister Bhattarai visited India in 2011 but could not sign major agreements on energy, security due to the possibility of a backlash from hard-core Communists back home. The new dispensation in New Delhi did not take notice of the domestic factor of Nepalese politics.

PM Modi, on the other hand, believed in contact diplomacy, that by visiting the country and making aid available and talking about South Asia as a collective entity he would be able to place India in the leading position in the region; but he failed to appreciate the role of China too, besides the prevailing anti-India sentiments. China had emerged as the major player in Nepalese politics. The hard realities were not given importance by the Indian foreign policy-planners and the PM, being unaware about the dynamics of international politics, allowed Nepal to slip away from the Indian sphere of influence. Nepal’s tilt towards China is now clear. In the whole game Prachanda was a key factor; he has recently played a role in the emergence of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), not a good sign for India. India needs to devise an effective mechanism to deal with the Chinese factor in Nepal but its pro-active approach is not visible.

The year 2015-16 is different from 1989-1990 when Rajiv Gandhi forced Nepal to follow India when New Delhi was not properly treated on the issue of the trade and transit treaty; Nepal had imported the anti-aircraft and armoured personnel carrier violating the treaty provisions. The blockade at that time was more punishing and was capable to bring Nepal to accept the Indian terms and the monarchy in Nepal had to acknowledge the democratic process thereafter.

The era of PM Modi is different as two factors differ from previous times. There is a clustering of the anti-Indian groups led by Prachanda and this is backed by China; and the role and influence of China are different from those in 1989 when it was attempting to fashion a more aggressive South Asian foreign policy. This time it has entrenched well in the region by enhancing its relations with Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Maldives, Pakistan and now Nepal where it is in the process of outmanoeuvring India.

There are some unpublicised aspects of this failure; primarily the mainstream media does not talk about these negative developments due to the failures of our government though these have much relevance for the country. The diplomatic corps in the country is not proactive at least at the regional level. Its working has become quite political and neutral stands are not visible from the side of the top leadership. Finally the political leadership is myopic in the sense that it does not understand the theoretical postulates of realism but harps only on PR techniques; however, in foreign policy these carry little significance. Indian foreign policy is a victim of these factors particularly in South Asia and in the case of Nepal it is almost a disaster.

The author is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at e-mail: vpy1000@yahoo.co.in

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