Save for a few foreign policy greybeards, most Indian analysts have a limited understanding of Nepal. They follow developments here only in relation to China: the hungry dragon, apparently, is gobbling up India’s traditional backyard, a BRI project at a time. Entirely missing the nuances of Nepal-China ties, they nonetheless like to hold forth on the latter’s ‘debt trap’ diplomacy: Look at what the Chinese did in Tibet or what they are doing in Hambantota. That India, a fellow democracy and close neighbor, is Nepal’s only ever-lasting friend. Few of them seem aware that China’s debt diplomacy is something endlessly discussed in Nepal.
But it is also natural for the Indians, representatives of a rising global power, to be more interested in other big powers like the US, China, and Russia, or Pakistan, the constant pain in the neck. Why should they have to worry about comparably inconsequential Nepal? About a country whose rulers have traditionally taken to bashing their homeland to get to and stay in power? Passing knowledge should thus suffice.
Typically, only horrendous news from Nepal makes it to the headlines of Indian mass media: the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane, the 2001 royal massacre, and the 2015-16 border blockade, for example. Most recently, all the coverage of Nepal is centered on the Nepali political elite falling into China’s trap and compromising on vital Indian interests. In the news now is China’s supposed encroachment of Nepali territories in Humla district, never mind that Nepal and China have amicably settled most of their border back in the 1960s and that the area in question is not even a small fraction of Nepal’s disputed territories with India. In light of the recent India-China border tensions, the Indians have become knee-jerk Sinophobes.
The only way the situation will improve is if the establishment in New Delhi really starts practicing its ‘neighborhood first’ mantra. Although successive Indian governments have vowed to make immediate neighborhood their top priority, seldom is the commitment reflected on the ground. Just like the attention of the broader Indian public, the attention of the Indian foreign policy and political establishment is almost exclusively focused on big powers.
Of course, bilateral relations are a two-way process. Nepal is unsure about its foreign policy priorities, its embassy in New Delhi is toothless, and Nepali leaders are invariably currying personal favors in their dealings with New Delhi, jeopardizing national interest in the process. (Even our prospective police chiefs, it turns out, want to be endorsed by the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu). If we can’t have our own house in order, we shouldn’t crib about outsiders.
Yet that doesn’t obviate the brutal fact that only India, with its economic and military heft, can take leadership of the region. If it is keen on improving its image in smaller South Asian countries, it could do much more: reduce tariffs on their products, allow them easy transit routes, and refrain from meddling in their domestic affairs. It is also incumbent upon the Indian political leadership to continuously remind their brethren of the importance of such countries’ support to realize India’s global aspirations.