Sudheer Sharma’s ‘The Nepal Nexus’ re-emphasizes the level of the all-around Indian meddling in Nepali domestic politics. He suspects India’s goal has traditionally been to keep Nepal in a perpetual state of ‘controlled instability’ so it continues to act as the kingmaker. Written based on his extensive experience covering Nepali politics and diplomacy, the book is a tour de force. Some have nonetheless blamed Sharma of being ‘soft’ on China compared to India in the book. Perhaps.
But what journalists like Sharma have come to realize over the years, and after three blockades, is that the only way Nepal can minimize the Indian ‘micromanagement’ is by inching closer to China as a balancing power. Traditionally, India hasn’t looked kindly at those who tried to reach out to China. Past Nepali governments have been pulled down on the barest hint that they were getting close to the Middle Kingdom.
China is often portrayed as an authoritarian state with a single-party dictatorship. India, on the other hand, touts itself as the largest democracy in the world. Yet in foreign policy, especially with its small neighbors like Nepal and Bhutan, India often resorts to the most undemocratic means like blockades and embargoes. Maybe a part of this was expected of a country naturally suspicious of outside powers thanks to its colonial history—and its current level of development.
Another thing is that nation-states can be the most democratic inside and yet pursue the most undemocratic policies outside the country. Whether it’s the case of the US unlawfully killing a senior Iranian general, or India imposing a blockade on a small landlocked neighbor, they act no different to the Chinese arm-twisting we see in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. Modern-day national interests that countries pursue are seldom egalitarian.
That doesn’t mean India’s relations with Nepal are a fait accompli. After all, as Sharma points out, India has had such magnanimous leaders like Chandra Shekhar and IK Gujral who wanted to abandon the hegemonic, self-serving diplomacy India practiced in the neighborhood. As the bigger power, they thought, the onus was on India to accommodate smaller powers in the region. Yet such Indian initiatives have been short-lived.
That said, there is also no need to harbor any inferiority complex vis-à-vis India. Even though Nepal’s boundaries are bound entirely by two countries, it is increasingly venturing farther afield. It has opened up new levels of engagements with most of the outside world. Australia is now just another Nepali home. As is the US. Or the Nepali labor migrants-rich Gulf. These days more Nepalis venture abroad as tourists than the number of foreign tourists who come to Nepal.
I agree with Sharma that one is naturally led to be suspicious of India based on history. But in the book’s context, as it is focused on Indian meddling in Nepal—and not Chinese, for instance—the degree of Indian involvement is perhaps a little exaggerated. The past need not only frighten us. It also offers many lessons for better bilateral ties.