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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Reinventing India’s Nepal Policy

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AVILASH ROUL
September 2, 2014

Over the years, the 'taken for granted attitude' of Indian policy-makers have distanced India to such an extent from Nepal that contiguous border between the two countries seem unfathomable since the mid-1990s.  It took a prime minister of India 17 long years to dismantle the distance and reach out to the Nepalese youth. The recent two-day high-profile visit by Indian Prime Minister to the Himalayan nation speaks volume of the sense, sensitiveness, confidence and consequences of bilateral relations that India wants to nurture with Nepal.
 
It is a usual temptation among the Nepal-watchers, observers, strategic experts and academics of India not to stop pivoting India-Nepal relation with myriad umbilical links to China. Such voices calling for containing China in India’s neighbourhood has failed miserably. In the last decade or so China has smoothly marched into Nepal without a hurdle.  The Prime Minister's visit has shown its proactive 'out of the box' thinking, which is supported by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The Nepalese Maoist leaders were successful in brining China inroad to Kathmandu. Meanwhile, a high-level Nepali delegation has just returned from China after seeking large investments from its northern neighbour. 
 
Before the visit, a leading Indian English Daily carried two view points of to-do list for India, one written by a former ambassador and another by a strategic analyst. While reading the two opinions, one can easily get Indian strategic community's thinking at present: one hovers the past to guide the future course of Indo-Nepal relations, and the other one shows a fresh thinking and postulates practical approach. However, the outcome of the two-day visit is more inclined towards a fresh beginning in the bilateral relations.
 
Departing from the usual protocols, the Prime Minister first unleashed an emotional chord that touched the hearts of millions of Nepalese, especially those Nepali workers who live in India, many of whom are ill-treated in Indian households and the labour market. Finding Jeet Bahadur’s family to reunite them was hailed by many. Even the Chinese State media said that it 'showed the human side of India's new prime minister'. In the age of social media, the human side of foreign policy is much more powerful than any 'abstract speculative strategic’ side.
 
The family reunion episode of Jeet, who flew to Nepal along with the Indian Prime Minister in his personal Jet, will help to erase the mistrust regarding India among the Nepalese people.  The PM’s visit has laid the foundation to build a 'new chapter' in Indo-Nepal ties. This personal gesture by the PM could go a long way for the future of India-Nepal bonding.
 
The PM’s 45-minute speech at Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has laid down the elements of bilateral relations that India wants with Nepal. Maintaining the emphasis on 'India is for South Asia', the Prime Minister pointed few 'ideas' for the legislatures, youth, entrepreneurs and farmers as food for thoughts. While the major portion of the speech dealt with preparation and timely completion of ongoing Constitution writing process in Nepal, Prime Minister Modi categorically clarified non-interference of India in Nepal. The Prime Minister deliberately avoided any superficial remarks or favouritism, which could fuel anti-India criticism. It was clear from the speech that a sacrosanct and well-accepted Constitution of Nepal based on consensus is good for India and the region.
 
The announcement of one billion US dollar soft credit for building infrastructure projects in Nepal is the largest ever support provided by any three donors so far -- India, China and the US -- to Nepal. This financial support is crucial for Nepal as it gives complete free hand to the Nepali leaders to utilise the money in priority sectors. The departure from usual Indian aid assistance pegged so far at maximum $230 million for the country also sends a message to world that India wants Nepal to stand its own grounds. These are not 'soft' diplomacy in 2014 and beyond!
 
It must be noted that in 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had a brief stopover for few hours in Kathmandu during when he announced an aid package of $120 million and increased the annual Chinese aid to Nepal to $200 million. That was the largest financial aid given to Nepal by a country other than India at that time.
 
The massive multipurpose Pancheswar project, stalled since 1996, got a boost with agreement of terms of reference (ToR) during the PM’s visit. “We will buy electricity from you, not take it free,” was the direct message from Modi. This helped to bring clarity among sections of Nepalese who are critical of India's involvement on the hydropower sector of Nepal. Two weeks before the visit, an Indian draft proposal on 'cooperation on power sector' raked up ruckus among some section of Nepalese experts. On the one hand, Nepal boastful of having 42,000 MW of economically feasible hydro-power generation capacity, which is the only available 'strategic asset' of Nepal. But, on the other hand, it has been sceptical for far too long of Indian involvement in realising this potential. Arguably, the ownership, location of hydropower projects and its social-environmental implications along with the price of electricity proposed by India will remain major hurdles to be resolved before any progress can be made further. The Indian side surely wouldn't like to see the repetition of the 1992 Tanakpur fiasco.
 
India has provided a number of 'ideas' to the Nepali leaders for a win-win situation for both the countries. One such 'idea' is exporting medicinal plants available in the high Himalayas, which could not only boost local farming, but also the overall economy of the country. However, this is easier said than done. There is a bottleneck of unchecked illegal harvesting and trafficking of number of endangered medicinal plants across porous Indo-Nepal border to feed international demand. What mechanisms do both countries have to address this menace? Shall a framework be designed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) or the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)? Both the countries need to address a common benefit-sharing approach within just revived bilateral Joint Commission.
 
It seems that Mr Modi is imbibing Kautilya's 'Sama, Dama, Danda and Bheda' – a complete diplomacy to get things done in the region. Bhutan and Nepal have seen ‘Sama’ and more ‘Dama’ so far.  The first glimpse of 'Danda' and 'Bheda' has fallen on Pakistan. It is yet to be seen how India invents itself in the neighbourhood under Modi’s leadership.  

Dr Avilash Roul (Ph.D.), Senior Fellow at Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC).