Mani Shankar Aiyar was among the rare Indian politicians who had consistently
spoken against India’s highhandedness during the five months of border blockade. The former cabinet minister in Manmohan Singh government has since been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighborhood policy. The veteran diplomat and writer sat down for a conversation with Republica’s Biswas Baral about PM Modi’s Nepal policy,
India’s concerns over China’s role in Nepal and the future of SAARC, among other issues. What is your evaluation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Nepal policy, particularly surrounding the border blockade of 2015-16?
He at that time seemed to have forgotten that Nepal is a sovereign country and was treating Nepal as if it was a recalcitrant Indian state. It is perfectly legitimate for us to have concerns about a neighboring country. There are appropriate channels through which our messages can be communicated. But we cannot force another country to go against its own perception of what is in its national interest. Pakistan collapsed into military rule because it took them nine years to form a constitution. And here we were in Nepal, which had not been able to put together a constitution for seven years (after the 2008 CA elections). Astonishingly, different constituencies got together and a constitution got finally drafted in 2015.
An objection to that constitution could have been that there were a substantial number of people in Tarai who had not gotten a just deal. But then there was a provision in the new constitution whereby the Constituent Assembly would continue to function as a parliament so that there could be further changes in the constitution. And Mr Modi had at that time promoted 120th amendment to our India’s constitution. If we can fiddle with our own constitution so many times and it still remains the same constitution, why couldn’t we trust Nepalis to do the same?
And to send our foreign secretary as a special envoy to Nepal when the date for promulgation of the constitution had already been set and for him to behave so badly in Nepal, it must have been on the instruction of the Prime Minister (Modi). So if there was one way of aggravating the problem, it was Modi’s way. The practical and constructive way could have been that you respect the Nepalis and their sovereignty and communicate to them that as a neighboring country India has some concerns. So it was very-very wrong what happened then. I think it was very generous of the Nepali leaders, including the previous Prime Minister (KP Sharma Oli) to come to India and to engage with Mr Modi. The only way of maintaining special relations with India’s smaller neighbors is to be courteous to them, to ensure that their dignity is respected and so is their sovereignty.
But the dominant view in Indian media at that time was that India must at any cost stand for the rights of the Madheshi people.
India is a separate country. We were not participants in the making of the Nepali constitution. We certainly are not the chosen representatives of the Madheshi people. The chosen representatives of the Madheshi people were those 110-odd Madheshi lawmakers who voted in favor of the constitution. So if changes need to be made, let them be made by Nepali people themselves. We have major problems in India, including in my state of Tamil Nadu, which was once fighting for separation from India. But we sorted it out. Do you think we want someone from Nepal to tell us how to handle Nagaland? So I think it is very-very wrong for us to be champions of one section of Nepali people. We should rather be champions of Nepali sovereignty and of Nepali good sense. If we have any advice, it should be given quietly. We shouldn’t be seen as participants in Nepali politics. We should not try to be an imperial power telling Nepalis what is good for Nepal.
In your view has there been a substantive change in India’s policy towards Nepal since the time of Modi’s inauguration as prime minister?
What happened back then (at the time of the blockade) was a serious aberration caused by a communal mindset, which thinks of Nepal as a Hindu country and India as a senior Hindu country, which wants to fetch up in Janakpur and distribute cycles to Nepali girls. Is this the way you treat Nepal?
When he first went to Nepal, Modi made much of the fact that he had gone while his immediate predecessor (Manmohan Singh) never went. But he (Singh) didn’t go because you were a country without a constitution and arguments over the constitution were dividing your people. For an Indian prime minister to turn up in the middle of this and to ask to take sides and be criticized if he took sides, and criticized even more if he didn’t take sides, it was just not the right thing to do.
What Modi did was show immaturity and arrogance, just the qualities Indians should never show on Nepal, not the least the prime minister.
You have also written of how Modi has pushed Nepal towards China. Given India’s recent highhandedness there is a growing perception in Nepal that perhaps China is a better friend of Nepal compared to India…
….because there are no Madheshis in China.
Not just that. It is also said that unlike India, China does not impose conditionalities on Nepal and that it is more reliable with its bilateral projects.
Consider all the advantages that Nepal has with India. There are no Nepali contingents in the Chinese army. You don’t have a free border with China. You don’t have a right whereby every Nepali can work in China. You can’t invest freely in China. So unlike China, India has a very positive relation with Nepal. What I object to is Mr Modi stamping on this special relationship and forcing Nepal to behave as if there is an alternative to India. China is not an alternative to India. China is rather a supplement to India. Geography prevents you from having as close a relation with China as you have with India. Nepal is bound to India by geography, by religion, by culture, and civilizational ties. But instead of being self-confident, why should India make Nepal choose between India and China? Yet, like I said, China cannot offer what India has to offer to Nepal. The best way of keeping Nepal on our side is through ties of friendship and affection and mutual respect and total respect for your sovereignty.
Didn’t Prime Minister Narendra Modi start on the right footing in the neighborhood by inviting all SAARC heads of state to his swearing-in ceremony? And how do you evaluate his neighborhood policy since?
First, in regard to the invitation of SAARC heads to his swearing-in, didn’t it look a bit like holding a durbar? Modi has proved that while other countries have PMs, we have an EM, an events manager. So he organizes these things, but they are without either depth or substance. He starts dialogue with Pakistan, but doesn’t tell the Pakistanis that this is on the condition of its breaking its connection with Hurriyat. This relationship was first promoted by a BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and as a result we have had a breakdown in our relation with Pakistan. Modi goes to Nepal and is received perhaps better than any Indian prime minister has ever been, and then he kicks you in the teeth. This is not the way to run foreign policy.
Modi also went to Sri Lanka, but has any headway been made in resolving the ethnic problems there? Even the deal on land boundaries with Bangladesh had been worked out long ago. Modi only gave it his final signature. Modi has a tendency of denying the contribution of his predecessor and claiming all the credit for himself. Still, Bangladesh is the relationship that has shown most improvement in the past two and half years. So far as Bhutan and Afghanistan are concerned, they have always had very good ties with India. Overall, I would say there has been no tectonic change in our relationship with any country in South Asia.
Given the recent Indian efforts to isolate Pakistan in SAARC, it is now said that SAARC as an idea is dead and we should now rather look to nurture sub-regional groups.
SAARC has always permitted sub-groups so there is as such nothing new in the idea of sub-regional cooperation. But SAARC will always be an ineffective entity so long as there is no sense of unity in South Asia. But I don’t think SAARC is dead either. It’s rather in the ICU.
Do you envision a SAARC without Pakistan?
No, it makes no sense. Pakistan is a part of South Asia. You cannot wish it away. In fact, I would go a step further and say that China should be a part of SAARC, perhaps not the whole of China but the Tibet Autonomous Region certainly. So if you can do the impossible and make China a part of SAARC, then I think we would be able to kill lots of birds with one stone.
We also got to read in the Indian press at the time of the blockade that while the new constitution in Nepal had honored the sensitivities of the Chinese it had ignored those of India. Do you think this was the reason for the blockade?
The blockade, as you put it, happened because Mr Modi was trying to win an election in Bihar. And it serves him right that he was badly defeated there. You can’t use foreign policy to serve your domestic interest. So your question on Chinese sensitivities is irrelevant. There is the biggest mountain in the world between Nepal and China. It is a Nepali fantasy that India’s role in Nepal is being equated with China’s role in Nepal. So why should I worry? So instead of making China an issue in Nepal-India relation, I self-confidently say that India’s relation with Nepal is far too strong for it to be replaced by Nepal-China relation.
During ex-Prime Minister KP Oli’s China visit Xi Jinping had proposed the idea of trilateral Nepal-India-China cooperation. What do you make of the idea?
I am in favor of all kind of cooperation within South Asia, between South Asia and Central Asia and indeed any cooperation at pan-Asian level. India was the first country to propose a pan-Asian conference in 1947. And yet we remain the most divided continent in the world. The Africans have the African Union, the Europeans have the European Union, the Organization of American State has been in existence since the late 1940s, but Asia is divided. In fact, Asia means different things in different parts of the world. In fact, the Americans don’t even regard Nepal as an Asian country. So I welcome all initiatives at bringing Asia together.
What is your take on China’s One-Road-One-Belt initiative? Apparently India is putting pressure on Nepal not to sign on the initiative.
I don’t know what the Indian government’s view is, but I do know that there are some apprehensions in India about OBOR. But there are so many positive characteristics of OBOR. We should try to take advantage of this Chinese initiative instead of impotently opposing it. Dozens of countries are welcoming it. So what do we gain by opposing it?
So in your view the OBOR proposal has been made in good faith?
There is no such thing as good faith in these kinds of political moves. They may have other objectives in mind. But I also don’t think we should be making an issue of it.
Some Chinese scholars I recently spoke were concerned about growing strategic ties between India and the US, say in their dealing with Nepal, with the ultimate goal of ‘encircling’ China. Do you buy this?
Even when I was a cabinet minister (between 2004 and 2009) I had serious reservations about strategic ties between India and the US. In all these strategic relations, the US has a clear concept of its strategic interest, and it’s a narrow concept, and they like to impose it on their allies. So it’s an unequal partnership between India and the US. And I certainly don’t share any US strategic objective to contain China. The best option is for India to maintain best of relations with China and with Pakistan.
Coming back to Nepal-India ties, do you think there has been a realization in New Delhi that perhaps it went too far in 2015 when it imposed the blockade?
This question presumes that it was India which imposed the blockade. But it was a blockade largely mounted by Nepalis of the lowlands against their own government, which India did nothing to break, and hence became a sleeping partner. But I object to the term ‘Indian blockade’. It was a blockade in which we acquiesced, which was wrong on our part. But I don’t think it has left lasting impressions. The India visits of the then Nepali prime minister, as well as his successor, have helped to smoothen the path. I think time has come to put the blockade behind us and for Nepal to accept that it has told its own people that it is open to making changes in the constitution. India, like I said, needs to deal with Nepal from a position of self-confidence so as to thwart any evil intent that the Chinese might have over Nepal. But I am not at all sure that the Chinese have such bad intent.
When you say India should accept Nepal’s sovereignty unconditionally are you suggesting that New Delhi should exclusively deal with Kathmandu rather than individual political actors in Nepal?
Not at all. If I respect the sovereignty of Britain, does it mean I can’t visit Nottingham? Does it mean I can’t listen to what the Welsh have to say? So when I say respect the sovereignty of Nepal, it extends throughout the country, not just Kathmandu. Our intergovernmental relations should be between the two capitals. But the relation between the two countries should be a relationship in which any concerns that we have can get conveyed to you in the hope that it will work itself out.