Millennium Post

Narendra Modi at his diplomatic best

Having Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Nepal (5-6 August) was an overture that was long overdue on India’s part. He was the first Indian PM to visit the neighbouring country in 17 years.

Last month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Nepal and chaired a meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, held in 23 years. It shows the extent of neglect that the Manmohan Singh government had shown to this country.

There are valid reasons for Nepal to nurse a sense of grievance against India. The Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950 was not the only irritant. During the last days of the monarchy, India opposed the political forces – from the Nepali Congress to the Maoists – which were trying to put an end to the monarchy and usher in a democratic regime – a federal republic. India’s sympathy for the monarchy was not secret but open. It stemmed from a totally wrong reading and assessment of the ground situation in Nepal. India feared that once monarchy was overthrown, Nepal would come under the control of the Maoists. The fear was totally unfounded.

As the elections to the 601-member Constituent Assembly (November 2013) showed, the Nepali Congress came out first, winning 196 seats (105 First-Past-the-Post and 91 proportional representation), followed by the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) with 175 (FPTP 91, P 84) and the breakaway Communist Party of Nepal  (Maoist) getting just 80 seats (FTTP 26, P 54). The Maoists were not only divided, the two factions were fiercely fighting each other.

During the turbulent days of the anti-monarchy movement, the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu was in constant and close touch with the chief of Nepal’s Royal Army, owing allegiance to the throne. The liaison was open and turned not only the political parties but the people of Nepal as such against India. China took full advantage of the situation and rapidly increased its influence in Nepal. By 2012, China-Nepal trade had grown by 61 per cent to $1.2 billion. India-Nepal trade stood at $2.7 billion in 2011. India was much ahead but China was fast catching up.

(Parenthetically, it may be added that an identical situation developed in India-Myanmar relations. As Myanmar was ruled by an army junta, India treated the country as a pariah, giving China virtually a head start over India in extending its influence in Myanmar. China has set up four powerful electronic ‘listening posts’ against India in the Andaman Sea – at Mon-aung, Haingyi, Zadetkyi and the Coco Islands.)

During his two-day visit, Modi gave several assurances to assuage the hurt feelings of Nepal. He promised, first, to ‘review, adjust and update’ the Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950; secondly, he announced a $1 billion ‘line of credit’ to Nepal for developing infrastructure and energy; and thirdly, he proposed that Nepal prepare for an Indian HIT (Highways, Information-superhighways and Transways) which will be mutually beneficial.

That Modi was fully aware of Nepal’s sensitivity about India became clear when in his speech in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly he categorically stated that India wanted neither to interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs, nor seek to ‘dictate’ anything to Nepal. Nepal was free to choose its own course to build and stabilize itself as a republic. India would help in the process. Such a forthright statement was necessary to remove any misgivings Nepalese leaders have about India’s intentions. The Manmohan Government only heightened these misgivings.

Some of the issues souring Indo-Nepal relations have been raised from time to time by different political parties in Nepal, especially the CPN(UML).

These are ending the ‘special relationship’ India has with Nepal which is thought to be not in consonance with Nepal’s self-respect. (Interestingly, it may be recalled that during his battle with the Ranas way back in the 1950s, King Tribhuvan had actually suggested Nepal’s merger with India as a State of the Indian Union.)  By agreeing to review the 1950 Treaty, Modi has taken the first step to removing all the irritants arising out of the six-decade old treaty.

Modi’s unambiguous statement that India intended neither to interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs, nor to obstruct Nepal’s own road to development and internal stabilisation has a great significance. In effect it implies that India would no longer treat Nepal merely as a ‘buffer State’ between itself and China. A study of Indo-Nepal relations over the last sixty years shows that India has looked upon Nepal solely from the point of view of its own security vis-à-vis China. Any move by Kathmandu to build closer relations with China was immediately viewed with suspicion and raised the hackles of New Delhi.

To give just one example, when Nepal decided to buy Chinese weaponry in 1989, New Delhi refused to sell it anti-aircraft guns – a move that was counter-productive in that New Delhi’s hostile attitude only helped to push Kathmandu further toward Beijing, at the same time raising the anti-Indian pitch in Nepal.

India has to redefine its attitude to Nepal in the context of the current geopolitical realities in Asia and its own long-range security interest. Modi’s Nepal visit should be the first step toward reorienting Indo-Nepal relations. IPA
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