The disruption of essential supplies from India either due to unrest in the border areas of Madhes or an unofficial blockade has forced a fuel-starved Nepal to airlift petroleum products from a third country. In New Delhi, meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs has expressed “serious concern” over the “growth of anti-India sentiment” in Nepal. Moreover, it categorically stated that India was not imposing an economic blockade in Nepal, official or unofficial. As discussed in this newspaper before, blockade or no blockade, the Indian government has botched up the entire situation in Nepal.
For the benefit of our readers, however, we shall present some of our reasons again. The protests in the Madhes region of Nepal against the promulgation of its new Constitution have veered out of control. For the uninitiated, the conflict stems from the Madhesis and Tharus inhabiting the Terai plains in Nepal, a region that is contiguous to India. The Madhesis share close ethnic ties with Bihar. Certain leaders of the Madhesi community allege that Nepal’s lawmakers backtracked on its promise to create “fully autonomous” federal state in the plains. The Constitution, though, has sought to merge the plain areas with provinces that will reportedly include large tracts of the hills. Such crass gerrymandering will leave them under the thumb of the hill population, according to the Madhesis.
In the past decade, the Indian establishment has played a part in accentuating the problems the Madhesis encounter today. Under the UPA regime, Nepal was long ignored, leaving the Chinese to fill the vacuum of influence. The Modi government sought to improve the scenario, especially with its stated ‘neighbours-first’ policy. In its desire to make up lost ground, however, the Modi government made some glaring strategic mistakes. The first came when Prime Minister Modi sought to address a massive public gathering in the Madhes region during his visit to Nepal last year, despite the fact that negotiations over the Constitution were still ongoing. It is rather apparent that Modi sought to tilt the balance of negotiations in favour of the Madhesis, besides playing to the gallery back home. Strategic experts in India have asked whether New Delhi’s haste in establishing a presence in the Madhes region came as a result of electoral calculations ahead of the upcoming Bihar polls. As stated above, the Madhesis share close ethnic ties with Bihar. However, the Nepali establishment, quite unequivocally, saw this as a blatant interference in their affairs.
In lieu of New Delhi’s chest-thumping over its recent success at hunting down militants in Myanmar, our neighbours have duly noted that if India is given even the slightest upper hand, it will charge down heavily on them. Soon after New Delhi’s announcement, the Myanmar government had retracted from its position that it allowed Indian boots on the ground. Subtlety was sacrificed at the altar of optics. The second strategic failure was New Delhi’s inability to coax the Nepali leadership into accepting its demands through follow-up work on the ground (both intelligence and diplomatic), leaving the Madhesi leadership toothless during the negotiations. The ultimate irony for New Delhi is that dissident communist leader and former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has decided to fight for the Madhesi cause. Suffice to say, the entire exercise behind the formulation of the Nepalese Constitution was an open affair. With Indian agencies on the ground and a competent diplomatic mission in Kathmandu, New Delhi was more than aware of how the traditional “Hill elite” were trying to steer the Constitution-making process in their favour.
The fact that Nepal’s lawmakers had completely ignored all of New Delhi’s demands is a testament to two facts. One, it could be rank incompetence on New Delhi’s part. On the other hand, however, one could argue that New Delhi was no match for Beijing. Either way, petty complaints from New Delhi that the entire fiasco was Nepal’s doing are futile. The hard truth is that the Indian establishment has failed to influence a country in its backyard. It is a damning indictment of New Delhi’s failure. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to direct foreign policy from the PMO (in other words over centralise) may have come back to haunt him. All New Delhi can do now is steer clear of belligerence and opt for backroom persuasion. Moreover, New Delhi should leave Kathmandu alone to resolve the major controversies in its Constitution.