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Pankaj Saran: If India’s growth can help Nepal that will be a good situation

Pankaj Saran:  If India’s growth can help Nepal that will be a good situation

Pankaj Saran is a former diplomat with 40 years of experience in foreign, strategic and national security affairs. He has served in key positions within the Government of India in the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council Secretariat, and Ministry of External Affairs and in several Indian missions abroad. 

He has served as India’s Ambassador to Russia and India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, and as head of the Northern Division in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with Nepal and Bhutan.  Saran is presently convenor of NatStrat, a Delhi-based independent Centre for Research on Strategic and Security Issues. He is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board and a Distinguished Fellow of the National Maritime Foundation. 

He is a regular commentator and writer on foreign affairs, security and strategic issues. Kamal Dev Bhattarai talked with him about the changing geopolitical situation in South Asia and its implications for Nepal. 

How do you see the changing geopolitical scenario in South Asia?

The rise of India is the most dominant feature of South Asia over the past few years. This is important because India is geographically the largest country in South Asia. It is the largest country in the world in terms of population. So what happens inside India is a matter of interest not just to the world but also to the smaller countries of South Asia. This is the first trend I have observed over the past few years. Second is there is a growing integration between the South Asian countries which is a very healthy trend. With the exception of Pakistan and Afghanistan, all other regions are today well-connected both at the government level and individual level, societal and economic levels. Third is we are finding greater interests in extra-regional powers. For example, China, the United States and to some extent Europe and Japan are showing more interest in the matters of South Asia. In a nutshell, South Asia has become more important in the global landscape than it was before.

How does India view the growing interests of extra-regional power in South Asia, mainly the US?

In South Asia, every country is a sovereign country, so they have the right to decide their respective foreign policy. Every country has the freedom to decide what kind of freedom they have with other countries. For India, it cannot comment on what kind of foreign policy any country can pursue. What India on its part is trying to do is to create an atmosphere in the region which helps the countries to develop and achieve their aspirations whether their developmental aspirations or economic aspirations or political aspirations. Its ‘neighborhood first policy’ has various dimensions such as increasing connectivity, building institutional mechanisms which will last and bind the countries which is an ongoing process. 

Sometimes, it happens at a fast pace, sometimes it happens at a slow pace, and sometimes there are obstacles. Like other regions, South Asia is affected by Covid-19 and Russia-Ukraine war. India is trying to help the smaller countries in this region. We believe that South Asia always remains an area which does not witness geopolitical competition. Because the priorities of the region are clearly oriented to economic and development issues. From an Indian perspective, it is better not to involve this region in the geopolitical competition and contestation in the world. We have already suffered during the cold war and it was of no benefit to this region. We do not want to go back to those days. Countries of the Global South have different priorities. 

Having relationships and cooperation with other countries with global and major power is legitimate. But we should not allow global major powers to exploit the vulnerabilities of small countries or Global South to create a difficult situation for them. The cooperation is natural but it should not translate into creating problems or forcing or using smaller countries by using their vulnerabilities to create problems for other countries either inside the reason and in the world. We have to find a new system or method in conducting international politics which does not increase tensions but it contributes to a greater atmosphere of peace and stability. Competition is fine. 

The United States is competing with China which is declared policy of both countries, it is not a secret. The question is whether this competition translates into conflict. This is a question that we have to ask ourselves. We do not like to be stuck in such a situation.

India is projecting itself as a leader of the Global South. How can the countries of this region benefit from it?  

From the G20 Summit, what India realized is that the global narrative was completely dominated by Europe and by what happened in Ukraine. The result was the problem of day-to-day management of economic development and not finding any reflection in the mass media. Among the global elites, India was able to sense the mood of the South and it held two summits: one before the G20 Summit and another after that to provide them a platform to share each other’s problems and concerns. And it was a great success. 

When it comes to Nepal, what India is focusing on is the practical implementation of policies toward Nepal. There are many aspects of activities between Nepal and India whether it is trade, economic cooperation or cultural or any aspects, and for me these cooperation are very important. India is providing help to Nepal in those areas where Nepal needs such help and it is understanding Nepal’s concerns and aspirations.

And for me these are core issues of bilateral relationship. Maintaining a close communication with Nepal at all levels is critical. If India’s growth can help Nepal to achieve its own national ambitions that will be a good situation. That is the constant efforts that you carry Nepal along to help and enable Nepal to take benefit from India’s growth. It is a reality that India is the fastest growing economy in the world and today its growth rate is higher than China. When India itself is changing so fast that gives opportunity to its immediate neighbors. There is an open border between two countries, there is free movement of the people so there are huge opportunities for Nepal.

But it seems that it is not happening, what are the bottlenecks?

I think it is happening. What we should think and try is to move beyond government. Governments have the role to play and they are playing their role in all that is going on. But there is much more in the relationship than the government.  Both societies have a deep stake in each other’s success and welfare. Every section of the society has a role to play and we should not leave this relationship only to the government. It is too important and too complicated to say that only the government can handle all the problems. 

The governments can provide a pathway, it can provide a broad ecosystem, it can provide atmosphere, and framework but other sections of society should play a vital role. Nepal is in need of employment and more investment which is a primary goal of the Nepal government. We have to see in what way India can help Nepal. One is obviously financial assistance, line of credits and development cooperation but there is more than that. I can see the huge potential of tourism. The Indian middle-class is growing fast and they are looking for a destination. Nepal should see India as a strategic depth. The good news is that India is doing well and Nepal has an opportunity and you should exploit it.

How does India view China’s growing concerns in Nepal?

What Nepal does with China and how it conducts its relationship is a matter for the Nepalese government to decide on which India cannot say anything. But, what I also say is that no relationship whether it is between Nepal and China or between India and any other countries should be constructed or developed in a way that harms the interests of someone else’ interests. This is a basic principle of international relationship. 

All countries are equal, equally sovereign and they have the right to conduct relationships but those relationships should not be at the expense of someone else's interests or no relationship should adversely affect the security interest of some other countries. Geography is a reality. Geography dictates the certain natural relationship and we should respect what nature has given to us—how geography has bound Nepal and India together. 

There is a certain affinity between two countries which will remain for the long run and no one can change it. You cannot artificially change the reality of geography and culture. You do not want any territory or country that is used for any activities that hurts some other country’s national security interests. No one would like it neither Nepal nor India and even for China any actions to be taken by any countries which it feels hurts its national security interests. This is a very natural and logical reaction. The fact is that India’s relationship today with China is in a difficult position. We are hopeful that we can persuade the Chinese to look at India differently to address India’s core concerns. But having said that we also trade with China, we have investment, so it is a complicated relationship. Everyone in India looks at Nepal through Indian eyes.