One of the best articulations thus far of the need to reset Nepal-India ties comes from C. Raja Mohan, among India’s most trusted foreign policy hands. At the risk of over-simplification, his nuanced column for The Indian Expressmakes two basic points: one, he urges New Delhi to come to terms with Nepal’s “natural politics of balance”; and two, for it to recognize that the “much-vaunted ‘special relationship’ is part of the problem.”
His first argument is that starting with Prithvi Narayan Shah, Nepal has always looked to balance India and China. KP Oli is doing no more than continuing the age-old trend. “Delhi, which puffs up with the mere mention of ‘strategic autonomy’, should not find it difficult to recognize where Kathmandu is coming from,” he writes perspicuously.
Second, Raja Mohan asks Delhi to no more hanker after “a ‘special relationship’ that a large section of Kathmandu does not want”. No bilateral relationship between nations can be built on sentiment, he continues, “whether it is based on faith, ideology or inheritance. Only those rooted in shared interests will endure.”
The strategic thinkers in Nepal have long been making this twin argument, and yet no one in Delhi seemed willing to listen. Many Nepalis are ‘anti-Indian’ precisely because they see Delhi as wanting to foist ‘special relationship’ on them: Given the power and demographic asymmetry between the two countries, the relations were ‘special’ only for the bigger partner. If India saw Nepal as its sovereign equal, it would ditch the ‘big brother mentality’ it inherited from the British and stop seeing Nepal as no more than a supplicant for its favors.
Every country’s foreign policy is rooted in its self-defined national interests. New Delhi’s emphasis on special relationship was also based on the belief that it served India’s interests—whether or not it served Nepal’s. The feeling in Kathmandu is that Delhi has over the years used the special relations to justify its interference in Nepal.
Again, nothing wrong in Delhi pursuing its interests the way it sees fit. It’s only if the Indians realize that the current modus operandi is not working do they need to change track. In this light, Raja Mohan’s recent article comes as a breath of fresh air. Not only does it hint of a realization in Delhi that its foreign policy conduct is breeding resentment in Nepal. I believe it is also a voice of a more confident India that can deal with its small neighbors based on mutual interests rather than outdated and artificial labels.
Paradoxically, therein also lies a need for caution for Nepal. If India revisits its ‘special relationship’, are we prepared to live with the consequences, like the renegotiation of “national treatment to Nepali citizens in India, trade and transit arrangements, the open border and visa-free travel,” as Raja Mohan suggests? Can we pick and choose what we want to retain from the old model? If the goal is to engage more with the rest of the world to reduce the country’s dependence on India, how can Nepal overcome its geographical constraints? Will Nepal then also un-peg its currency with the Indian currency? Forget the concerns of the south for a moment. The more important question is: Have we done any homework on how Nepal, minus the special relationship, will deal with the changed reality of ‘equality’ with India?