There is much more to India-Nepal relations than what meets the eye. Frequent visits by political leaders from both sides, debate on India's anticipated participation in ensuring smooth democratic elections in Nepal and the border of the two countries turning into a passive terror fugitives' arrests - all these developments point to a bigger strategic metamorphosis of affairs unfolding between the two countries.
Undoubtedly, Nepal is in the middle of a crisis that inevitably emanates from the newly-found republic’s geographic positioning in the rhetorical third world. Prolonged failed attempts to craft a constitution, distinct views on upcoming democratic elections within Nepal political parties and a continuing inability to bring consensus on any issue of nation-building has plagued the country's well-being.
Paradoxically, these are the times when relations between two countries (especially neighbours) evolve irrespective of the outcome. These are also the times when the recessive ones become vulnerable to 'interferences'. India-Nepal relations, perhaps, are going through a phase that is crucial for the two countries as well as South Asian geopolitics.
Salman Khurshid’s visit
Union external affairs minister Salman Khurshid's visit to Nepal early in July indicates to India’s growing interest in Nepal. As part of usual diplomatic dictation to reporters, Khurshid stressed on relations with Nepal be the highest priority besides ensuring that it remains a democratic, stable, peaceful and prosperous republic. However, the efficacy of the two-day visit is succinct from the fact sheet on the ministry of external affairs website.
From boosting trade through more transit and air routes to providing all logistical support for security agencies and Election Commission of Nepal for the upcoming Constituent Assembly polls on 22 November, India extensively discussed as many as seven issues with the neighbouring country, which also includes water resources, augmenting electricity supply, exim bank line of credit, defence cooperation and development partnership.
Nepal had plunged into a political and constitutional crisis after the Constituent Assembly was dissolved without promulgating the constitution in 2012. The elections to be held in November, 2012, did not take place, pushing the country into a political deadlock. Besides, prolonged failed attempts to draft a Constitution have created concern of possible unrest in neighbouring countries. Khurshid’s visit came two years after SM Krishna had visited Nepal.
Interestingly, not just the ruling party but the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has also stepped up their engagement with the neighbouring country. Ravi Shankar Prasad, BJP’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha and chairman of the party’s working group on neighbouring countries visited Nepal for three-days in August last week. He met President Ram Baran Yadav, chairman of the interim election government and chief justice, Khila Raj Regmi, former prime ministers, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda,’ Sher Bahadur Deuba, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Lokendra Bahadur Chand and other Madhesi leaders.
Prasad had said during the visit, 'Nepal will be on our priority list if we come to power in 2014 Lok Sabha elections in India.' He had also said that Nepal’s sovereignty and integrity are of prime importance and BJP would like to see a democratic republican Nepal based on federal principles reflective of its diversity. Nepali leaders who had recently visited Delhi had also met BJP president Rajnath Singh.
Activities along the India-Nepal border
This aspect of India-Nepal relations is primordially bi-dimensional, both antagonistic to each other. India considers this porous border favourable for terrorist rehabilitation programme as it ensures smooth movement of Pakistani terrorists who are looking to surrender in India. The home ministry is all set to make the Nepal route, taken by ex-militants for surrender and rehabilitation, official. Recently, a controversy erupted after contradictory claims by Indian investigating agencies on the arrest of a Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist, Liaqat Shah from India-Nepal border. While National Investigating Agency claimed that he had come to surrender, the Delhi police tried implicating him. But the same border is also used for conduction of illegal activities. It is one of the most frequented route for influx of fake Indian currency notes (FICN) into India and other smuggling purposes.
Of late, a third dimension is emerging. A leading daily newspaper recently published a report about clandestine hand overs of terrorists arrested in Nepal territory to Indian security agencies. Referring to the arrests of Abdul Karim Tunda, a 70-year-old LeT operative on 17 August, the report states, 'Such secret arrests of Indian terrorists and insurgents in Nepal and quiet hand overs at the border are not new. Despite the absence of any treaty legalising such moves, both countries have been handing over criminals and terrorists across the border without anything on record to show they were arrested in another country.'
Indo-Asian News Services (IANS) cited a report in Nepali daily Kantipur that Tunda and Bhatkal had been arrested in Kathmandu. Contrary to Indian security agencies’ account of Bhatkal's arrest, this report states that, 'Bhaktal was caught in the Bagbazar area and then taken to Birgunj, a town on the Indo-Nepal border. Besides these two arrests, Nepal security services recently had arrested two Indian sharpshooters and gangsters, Chirinjivi Sagar Kushwaha and Bikash Jha and reportedly handed them over to Bihar police. According to Nepal police data, some 400 Indian criminals and those with terrorist links have been arrested so far this year in Nepal. The figure stood at 349 last year. Clearly such reports make border exchanges intriguing.
Unprecedented number of visits from Nepali leaders
Increasing visit by Nepali leaders in the last couple of months is a matter of scrutiny. Nepali Congress president Sushil Koirala is the latest leader to visit India. He visited Delhi on 4 August for a six-day visit. Former prime ministers of Nepal M K Nepal and S B Deuba paid independent visits in close succession.
A few months back another ex-prime minister PK Dahal ‘Prachanda’ had also visited India. All leaders have claimed that their visits had been a 'success'. A little light on what 'success' they are talking about would have been appropriate.
It has been pursued sublimely by analysts that India's actions in Nepal are intertwined with their strategic concerns in the Himalayan nation. This sudden indulgence between India-Nepal political leaders at the highest political level is also being looked at through the prism of scepticism. In this context, it has to be critically viewed whether India is in a position to pressurise Nepali authorities to dictate its terms.
A noted Nepali columnist Birendra Mishra asks, 'Has India any political, diplomatic, economic and other leverage over Nepal to force the country to follow its advice? Is Nepal dependent on India for its existence? Is it psychologically dependent or materially?' He argues that from an overview of the political events that had taken place in Nepal, where India appeared to be engaged right from 1950 till date, it is glaringly clear that India’s role had been secondary and never primary.
However, the common observation that India’s blessing is needed for acquiring power and continuing in power has to be objectively analysed and critically evaluated. To conclude, India being a South Asian 'big brother' aspires to ensure a stable and democratic Nepal. The bigger question, however, is whether this neighbourly concern overlaps New Delhi's strategic interests in the region's geopolitics. As Mark Twain said - 'the principle of give and take is the principle of diplomacy — give one and take ten.' The recent India-Nepal interactions, perhaps, stem from this proverb.