The India it wants to become contradicts with the India it is showing (with respect to Nepal).
India wants to become one of the world’s most prosperous nations by 2050. That is why it has embarked upon an ambitious, vibrant “Act-East” policy to build its reputation and attract enough partnership and investments to meet this level of prosperity. It is working hard to keep a strong economy by pursuing with its Asian neighbors to the east, a vibrant 3 pillar relationship based on Commerce, Culture and Connectivity.
India has directed its best diplomats and resources towards this. It is helping build Asian super highways to connect India to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand reaching all the way to Vietnam. It is working with its eastern neighbors to explore oil and other vital resources. It is assertive yet welcoming. It wants the world to realize that the world benefits from “Rising India”. It further wants to show the 21st century as “the Asian Century” through its aggressive “Act East” policy.
It so happens that the first country if you look to the east of Delhi is Nepal. Therefore, it is almost self defeating to India’s ‘Act East’ policy when it practices ‘brinkmanship’ diplomacy with Nepal. ASEAN countries (all of them smaller than India) will be closely watching how India treats its smaller neighbor as they could see themselves in the similar place of Nepal in the foreseeable future when India dominates the world economy. Hence the steps India would take to build a better relationship with Nepal, culturally, commercially and in terms of connectivity is important to India’s own “Act East” partnerships with the “now” powerful ASEAN nations.
Nepal is important to India culturally as most of us share the same religions, similar traditions and even strong family ties in some cases. We are an important spiritual center to over a billion Indians.
Nepal is also important to India commercially. A small example would be the fact that Nepal is the 7th highest remittance provider to India (i.e Indians working in Nepal send 3 billion dollars back to India).
Nepal is important to India connectivity wise because it wants better trade with its northern neighbor China to stay on the path of prosperity. India has to set out and offset any security threats that could thwart this important goal. It needs all the connectivity it can get. Fear is never a good strategy when it comes to building prosperity so in Nepal, India can find a safe bridge to China and to prosperity.
Recently I invested a substantial time understanding India by visiting it as a part of 14 Asian and American leaders’ delegation that met with various influential Indian political, social and business leaders up close.
The India I observed was certainly not the India I came to find when I returned to Nepal. The India I found on my trip was vibrant, rising to build prosperity all around, taking concrete steps to uplift its citizens from abject poverty and building win-win partnerships globally. From spokespersons of ruling BJP to opposition Congress party, the focus was on how to build a prosperous and inclusive India, and how to bring in investments to create opportunities for its millions who are desperate for dignified jobs. Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal seemed adamant on making a ‘servant government’ role model for first Delhi and then India. Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis detailed us about building 22 smart cities around Mumbai. At the Ministry of External Affairs, ‘the South Block’ in Delhi, the officials were eager to show that their foreign policy focused on enhancing economic ties. India seems to be working to fulfill its ambitions to lead the world. And when asked directly by the 14 visiting Asian and American leaders, they clearly stated, “India doesn’t have a policy of prescribing democracy to other countries.”
Ironically, the step India took last week in context of Nepal, contradicts its own noble ambitions, hopes and desires to lead the world. After observing closely its contradictions, I have come to a conclusion that there are two key reasons behind the regrettable steps taken.
- Indian officials / diplomats handling relations with Nepal
- Nepal’s current incompetent political leadership
1) I believe Indian officials and diplomats who handle foreign relations specifically with Nepal do not have relevant ground level information on 21st century Nepal because they rely much on their narrow contacts. Many of these are corrupt cronies who have misruled the center in Nepal and in local regions like madhesh for a reasonable time and are now deeply mistrusted by their own citizens.Sadly Nepalis are compelled to vote them to power each time because no winnable alternatives are allowed.
Withholding local elections for 17 years has delayed the creation of a critical mass of new generation leaders. It is unfortunate that Indian diplomacy is based on understanding Nepal from this primary network of outdated politicians in their 60s when more than half of Nepali are under 22. In short, Indian decision makers get outdated, ill-informed and misguided information from their sources, hence improving their chances of unfortunate decision-making that creates a lose-lose situation for both Nepal and India.
2) Nepal’s current leadership has shameful diplomatic know-how. Infact, I question if they even have the skills and confidence to negotiate on a dignified level, one sovereign country to another. Nepal’s current leaders in the center and in madhesh do not have the integrity to share our internal problems and solutions objectively to its immediate neighbor. Hence, the contradictory and petty interests-filled messages that they send confuses India to take skewed decisions that turn out to be counter productive for India’s own global ambitions. India’s ‘unofficial’ blockade on Nepal is an example of this.
Undoubtedly, Nepal has deeply rooted problems with its own syndicate of ‘rulers’. They constantly over-promise and under-deliver. As a result, they divide and ruthlessly suppress their own citizens by ruling with such arrogance that makes many of its citizens feel like they are second or even third class in their own nation.
But there is a hope for Nepal (and for India). A 21st century relevant new generation of leadership is building on all sectors outside the mainstream socio-political-economic elite in Nepal. They are itching to take lead and help create a stable, prosperous Nepal. This world exposed, qualified generation believes in a different culture of leadership that has similar prosperity goals like India. It also strongly believes that to build a prosperous Nepal, we would need to help build a prosperous India and China too. Just like India, this 21st century relevant leadership believes in engaging proactively with our neighbors through commerce, culture and connectivity. India would be in an advantage to keep up with this exciting new reality in Nepal.
To close, If India wants to bring its 300 million + citizens out of abject poverty, it must stay on the right course to bring in the much needed investments, partnerships and trust. This all hinges upon how India handles relations with Nepal.
“The world is watching us”.
A version of this appeared in Myrepublica newspaper on Oct 3, 2015.