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Opinion | India’s Nepal policy: Time for reset

Opinion | India’s Nepal policy: Time for reset

In the past six months, many political pundits, analysts and foreign policy enthusiasts, both in India and Nepal, have been puzzled by India’s Nepal policy. India has been publicly saying that political developments in Nepal are its ‘internal matters’, but there was a strong perception that India was throwing its full weight behind Prime Minister KP Oli through various bargaining interactions.

Prime Minister Oli’s move to dissolve the parliament twice sparked a constitutional and political crisis. Nepal’s Supreme Court not only reinstated the dissolved parliament and ordered the President of Nepal to appoint Oli’s rival Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister. It also clearly mentioned that actions of the President and the Prime Minister were unconstitutional and hence the need for the judicial review.

With Deuba, the head of Nepali Congress, a moderate and often friendly political party for India’s strategic goals, there is an opportunity for India to reset its Nepal policy. But the question is: Will India, which has traditionally supported Nepal’s democratic movements, continue to advocate for individual persons rather than policies? 

However, the future of India-Nepal relations will largely depend on two issues: one, whether India realizes the larger risk of not fully engaging all major parties in Nepal and expressing its firm support for Nepal’s constitutional democracy and two, whether Deuba’s new government understands India’s key strategic interests and tries to address its concerns.

Nepal should also pay close attention to a couple of questions to understand India’s foreign policy conundrum. What would have been India’s strategic considerations behind its support of Prime Minister Oli, who, in the past, had earned a reputation of being a hardliner against India? Was India’s support driven by a short-term strategic goal of dismantling the unification of Nepal’s China-leaning communists or accommodating more Madhesis in the government? Who is actually leading India’s Nepal policy? India’s Prime Minister’s Office, its External Affairs Ministry or its intelligence agency? Are Indian Embassy and India’s other contacts in Nepal feeding right information or misleading Delhi? 

The Modi government’s foreign policy has been influenced as much by domestic political agendas, including Hindu nationalism, hardline stance against Pakistan, and India’s quest for world power, as by India’s rising concern over rapid expansion of China’s economic clout in India’s neighborhood and China’s military might in Asia. For example, in addition to the Belt and Road Initiative, China has recently launched the ‘China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center’.

The ‘Neighborhood First’ policy, which was first articulated by former Prime Minister IK Gujaral for peaceful relations and co-development with its neighbors, has been one of the signature initiatives of the Modi government. However, in Modi’s second term, it turned into a policy to keep Pakistan aside and counter China’s rising influence in India’s neighborhood.

According to India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “Irrespective of issues that the neighbors might have vis-a-vis India, we should be able to create an environment so that the neighborhood remains bound to and sensitive to India’s core security concerns”. In recent years, India seems to be moving away from the strategic approach (e.g., supporting democracy) towards a more selective approach with a focus on tactical gains to protect India’s security interests in the neighborhood.

Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor, and S. Jaishankar, are both known for their hardline stance on managing China, dealing with Pakistan, and consolidating India’s position in India Ocean countries—Sri Lanka and the Maldives. These two leading foreign policy architects of India have often been trolled for acting more like apparatchiks and less like diplomats because of their tactics of not letting traditional relations or historical factors affect India’s interests and aspirations.

For example, despite its global recognition as the largest democracy in the world, India abstained from voting on the UN's Myanmar resolution that condemned its military coup. The resolution was approved with 119 countries voting ‘yes’, Belarus voting ‘no’ and 36 countries, including India, abstaining. India has walked a diplomatic tightrope by expressing its support for the democratic transition, but not criticizing Myanmar’s junta, with a tactical aim of preserving ties with the military to maintain India’s strategic security and counter-balancing China’s influence in Myanmar.

The Modi government’s focus has been improving relations with Bangladesh by supporting the ‘invincible’ Sheikh Hasina, who has been widely criticized for curtailing democracy by suppressing political opposition through rampant human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, and corruption. In Sri Lanka, despite the Tamils’ ethnic roots in India and Modi’s strong Hindu nationalism, India abstained from a vote at the UN human rights body asking Sri Lanka to do more to protect minority Tamils from allegedly mass rights violations. In the Maldives, India is vying for influence against China by significantly increasing security, development and diplomatic engagement, despite Solih government’s police crackdown and indiscriminate mass arrests of protestors that triggered the ‘India Out’ campaign.

As in other South Asian countries, and with Oli’s 180-degree turn towards India, the strategy of countering China’s growing influence in Nepal could have been superseded by other India’s foreign policy goals. However, this policy significantly contributed to the growing perception of many Nepalis that India is against the current constitution and in favor of dismantling the current system.

Many former Indian diplomats (e.g., Ranjit Rae, Manjeev Singh Puri and Shyam Saran), who know Nepal’s geo-politics well, argued that India was risking its strategic gains by backing Oli and alienating other forces. India should rather have expressed its stand for political stability and constitutional governance in Nepal.

On the Nepali side, new Prime Minister Deuba has an opportunity to reach out to India and establish an open and honest line of communication to discuss all outstanding issues and find common grounds. In the past, Deuba’s government has agreed with India for early conclusion of the Agreement for Mutual Legal Assistance and updating the Extradition Treaty. However, more recently, the alliance with Prachanda, the head of the Maoist party with a soft corner for China, and the leadership competition in Nepali Congress, with some members of his own party feeding suspicions about him, might have contributed to Deuba-India trust deficit.

It will be clear in a few days whether India will reset its Nepal’s policy by choosing policies over persons, but one thing is clear. The ‘trust deficit’ between India and Nepal’s new government should be overcome. The image of an ‘interventionist neighbor’ could be counter-productive to India’s interests in the long term. On the other hand, Nepal needs India’s support for its stability, development and constitutional governance.

The author holds a Master of Science in International Affairs from the New School University, New York, and Specialized Post Graduate courses from Harvard University