|| NATIONALIST PARANOIA
Perhaps the greatest paranoia that engulfs Kathmandu is the fear of India’s intervention in the internal matters of the country and the nefarious designs behind it; and in turn, a major foreign policy challenge for India today is to dispel this very notion.
India and Nepal share a complex relationship—harmonious and culturally close with a high level of people to people interaction, combined with an open and porous border. However, this is in the broader context of one nation emerging as a far more politically, economically, strategically and militarily advanced state.
There is something very disconcerting about the common Nepali’s suspicion and in fact, even mistrust and abhorrence towards India’s role in the country. There is a belief in certain section that India’s sole purpose is to interfere in the internal matters of Nepal so as to destabilize the country and that it spends all its time identifying strategies to do this.
Before going any further, let me submit that there is no doubt that India has messed up its role in Nepal in the past on several occasions and there have indeed been serious policy and judgment lapses on its part, but this certainly does not point towards a focused and deliberate intent to harm/subvert Nepal, particularly at a time when it is going through a crucial transition. And there are several reasons that make this paranoia seem not just exaggerated but also misplaced.
The first question to be asked is whether this ‘interference’ by India is entirely unsolicited and unwarranted, or does it often come at the behest of Nepal’s political class. Recently, a senior and influential opposition leader from India—Yashwant Sinha—visited Kathmandu and is believed to have been consulted by certain political groupings here that urged him to push for their case in India. Sinha though claims he was on a personal visit, but does admit having held some ‘political’ discussions here.
The point is that Nepali parties have always believed in lobbying with India at various levels— political and bureaucratic—for furthering their agenda and pushing their case. The problem, however, is that Nepal’s political leadership engages in such consultations in a highly discreet manner and no political party conveys to its people when it seeks Indian involvement. The people of Nepal, thus, see only one side of the picture—India’s mediation, having been kept in the dark about the other side when such arbitration was sought by their own political class.
To add to that, Nepali politicians often whip up anti-India sentiment when it suits them; the jingoistic nationalist fervor is very much a political and electoral ploy and often depends on which political group’s side India takes. India naturally gives advice to Nepal keeping its own interests and affiliations in mind and this is termed either as ‘constructive mediation’ or ‘hostile intervention’, depending on which side of the political divide you are on.
Two, India’s foreign policy is already overcrowded and focused on dealing with its conflict-ridden or uncomfortable relationships. The border dispute with China, the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka, the illegal immigrant issue with Bangladesh and of course, the constantly strained equation with Pakistan dominate India’s foreign policy concerns, apart from its now-on, now-off relationship with the US.
Since Indo-Nepal equations have been relatively smooth, it constitutes a miniscule portion of India’s external affairs mind-space. In fact, Indian bureaucrats who deal with Nepal often complain—and that indeed is unfortunate—that the political and policy making class in India does not spend enough time or energy on Nepal. It shows that the Indian government does not spend all its time—or actually any time, trying to find ways to establish its supremacy in Nepal.
Three, any country with even an iota of political and strategic intelligence will know the demerits of an unstable neighbor—particularly a friendly neighbor—in today’s globalized and inter-dependent world. The Indian establishment may be unwise in many matters but it really cannot be so foolish so as to deliberately cause unrest in a country with which it shares an open border.
Four, to any average Indian, this Nepali hostility towards India is hugely surprising and perhaps even upsetting given that a large number of Nepalis live in India, are well received, and so easily mingle with its people. It is also surprising because Indians rarely ever hear its political/bureaucratic class even talk about Nepal—forget about planning some nasty hostile move against it.
Hence, when one reads about how India plans to “annex” Madhes in Nepali publications, it comes across as ludicrous. Can any country, in its right frame of mind, even hope to ‘annex’ a part of some other country today, particularly when it is fraught with its old border and territorial disputes? And what will India do with Madhes—it already has 28 states, half a dozen of which give the entire establishment enough sleepless nights and which it continues to struggle to keep together. Rest assured, the country cannot possibly want to take on any more on its already diverse and chaotic platter.
Five, the very use of this ‘big brother’ phrase to describe India’s disposition towards Nepal is deeply troubling. What does it even mean? The size of a country does not determine whether another country can dominate it. It is the political establishment—its competence and resoluteness that matter the most. Nepal’s political class has so far failed its people—unable to fulfill the very mandate for which it was picked. The instability in Nepal is not caused by India or its strategists; it has been caused by Nepal’s own political leaders, their lack of vision and the petty tussles they are constantly embroiled in.
Instability in Nepal is not caused by India but by Nepal’s own political leaders, their lack of vision and petty tussles they are embroiled in.
If the political establishment of a country decides it will not tolerate any external interference and shows steadfastness, there is no way another country—however big or powerful—can intrude and cause domestic schisms, particularly in today’s global order where the balance of power is far more nuanced and symmetrical. It is the inability of the political class to deliver stability and development to Nepal that has caused this persecution complex and blaming India won’t help.
Finally, what is more disturbing is a recent spurt in the belief that Nepalis are targeted and mistreated in India—an accusation that is absolutely misplaced. In a recent column in this newspaper, a Nepali gentleman tried to corroborate his hypothesis with his experiences in India’s airports.
In one instance, he uses the example of his wife’s broken luggage with valuables missing at the Delhi airport to explain his point. Were the Nepali lady’s valuables stolen because she was a Nepali? Can there be such targeted harassment? Poor and inadequate airport management is a reality in most developing countries, including Nepal and that is precisely what this was. Instead of suffering from such a complex, Nepalis should understand that the Indian government, and the sarkari babus, treat some of their own citizens far worse than they treat anyone else.
The bottom-line is that the two countries have a lot to learn and gain from each other; a fruitful relationship between the two can go a long way in helping both Nepal and India. But if one side continues to harbor paranoia and mistrust, then it may well turn into one of the most unstable and hostile neighborly equations in South Asia.