Nepal has plunged into new crises. The timing could not be any worse as the earthquake-hit Himalayan state is struggling to rebuild the country. Since August political turmoil has ensued from the promulgation and subsequent ratification of the constitution – first in the country’s history.
Now the national economy is edging toward a standstill due to, what Nepal says, a ‘trade blockade’ imposed by India. India’s response to Nepal’s constitutional row, no matter how tactless it seems, fits into the usual pattern of India’s foreign policymaking vis-à-vis South Asia. India will not interfere with its neighbors’ internal affairs. But the reality is often at odds with its rhetoric. The latest India-Nepal disagreement comes to illustrate that.
To Delhi, Nepal’s new constitution is problematic despite the fact that it has been overwhelmingly passed by the Nepalese House. Delhi’s concern is, in fact, not overstated. As many as 43 people including cops have been killed in protests linked to the constitution as different groups have hit the streets staging violent protest against the draft constitution. Some groups think the constitution does not reflect their needs entirely. For instance, some are discontent as they think the newly proposed proportional representation system in the parliament has shrunken to 45% compared to what was 58% in the interim constitution. Women’s groups are agitated due to a provision that bars a mother from being able to pass her citizenship status to her child. However, these do not trouble Delhi much.
What worries India most is that it thinks Nepal’s constitution has not taken into account the concerns of ethnic groups, the Madhesi and Janjati. These people have closer social and economic ties in India. Not having a state of their own means the two groups will have lesser voice in state affairs. The citizenship law will make the children born in a family in which their father comes from India, a common phenomenon among the Madhesis and Janjatis, ineligible for Nepalese citizenship. Furthermore, similar to their like-minded political parties in Nepal, many hardcore Hindu nationalists in India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its offshoots strongly prefer Nepal to remain a Hindu state as opposed to what its constitution creates: a secular federal state.
Hence, Delhi has reacted. Shortly after Nepal enacts its first ever official charter as a constitutional republic, Delhi has recalled its ambassador to Kathmandu for “urgent consultation.” In most cases, recalling a diplomat from a foreign country symbolizes unease in bilateral relations. India has gone beyond that diplomatic symbolism by imposing an unofficial economic blockade on Nepal. A long column of transports carrying goods, which range from petroleum goods to foods, and medicine, is reported waiting at the Indian side of the border for weeks. Delhi has promptly laid blame on the ongoing violence in areas adjacent to the border. Nepal disagrees, saying that security threats have been less significant for Indian trucks to pass through.
While the stalemate continues, everyday life in Nepal has seriously been affected. This is not because Nepal has suffered two devastating earthquakes a few months ago, but because the landlocked country is heavily dependent on India for importing most of its day-to-day products. Nepalese government’s desperation is clear as it has sought help from the United Nations. Although India is reported to have decided to discontinue the so-called economic sanction, problems remain unresolved. Oil and goods supplies from India have yet to fully resume.
This low point in the India-Nepal relationship is not unprecedented. In 1989, for fifteen months India sanctioned Nepal. With that being said, the latest disagreement is particularly conspicuous for several reasons. Delhi’s umbrage demonstrates that India cares more about its interests, even if they are short-tem, rather than helping foster democratic practices in a friendly nation. Pursuing its national interests is the norm for any rational nation state. But the way Delhi has reacted to the Nepalese constitution row seems to lack both sensitivity and sound reasoning. On the one hand, India vows to advance Narenda Modi’s much-touted “seamless connectivity” with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal; on the other hand, it is punishing one of the important stakeholders. Not only that, India has squandered the opportunity to manifest its generosity by not being appreciative of what Nepal has achieved: The new constitution is, in some sense, progressive as it acknowledges sexual minority people as disadvantaged and protects their participation in the statecraft. Most importantly, the constitution is likely to put an end to the perennial struggle among political parties that has crippled Nepal’s politics and stability for years.
This is why, Delhi’s blockade of Nepal amounts to be a strategic faux pas. It is not clear how far Delhi will go to make the Nepalese accommodate its preferences. But it is understandable that India might not come out of this unaffected. The Indian image among Nepal’s population has diminished. If it is any indication, the cable TV operators’ decision to blackout Indian TV channels is a big move, given the extreme popularity of Indian satellite channels among the Nepalese. Concerned parties continue to express their dismay at the Indian ‘embargo’ and urge Kathmandu to seek international help.
China is ready to assist. After its foreign minister returned home from Delhi with little hope, Kathmandu is reaching out to Beijing for immediate help. Facing an unaccommodating India, that is the only logical decision for Nepal. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, a close ally of India, has expressed its concern. India’s intransigence is certain to have sent a message to countries like Bangladesh who are highly dependent on Indian exports.
Make no mistake, India’s meddling into its neighborhood is not unprecedented. Whether it is Delhi’s unconditional support for a government in Bangladesh that has clung to power through a seriously flawed election, or its alleged sleight-of-hand to defeat Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa in the national election, Indian influence has become a considerable factor in the national politics of these countries. Even Bhutan and Maldives have seen Indian tactics being played in their domestic politics. During the peak of an election campaign, an Indian decision to stop subsidizing kerosene and cooking gas led to a price hike. Many Bhutanese believed that paved the way for the defeat of the then incumbent party. However, in the Maldives, despite Delhi’s open support, Nasheed lost in the run-off election.
India has scaled up its effort to shape how its neighborhood functions under friendly governments. The reason can be twofold. First, India now looks outward and aspires to become a global power. In this endeavor, India needs stable and supportive neighbors. After all, India has suffered due to the problems that often have originated in neighboring countries: Pakistan-based terrorist groups, the Tamil fighters group (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, and lawlessness in Nepal are among them. Hence, India seeks to have friendly governments across the region that can check threats against Indian interests. The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh is a good example. Hasina has not only crushed anti-Indian elements inside Bangladeshi territory, but also agreed to give India a long-awaited transit through Bangladesh to India’s restive northeast states. Second, China has already made significant inroads into India’s neighborhood. China eyes creating a maritime Silk Road connecting Indian Ocean nations to Southeast Asia in addition to restoring the historic overland trade routes. Unlike China, funneling dollars into cash-strapped South Asian countries is not easy for India. Yet India is averse to watch its neighborhood go under its rival’s influence. Therefore, India does not hesitate to play behind-the-scenes tactics to wield its influence on the governments across the region.
India’s desire to keep its neighborhood under its clout can be likened to the Monroe Doctrine that put the United States on course to emerge as the hegemon of the western hemisphere. As an aspiring power, that is not unexpected . Many International Relations (IR) theorists would argue in favor of that. However, India should keep in mind that South Asia’s geopolitical landscape is different from that of any other region. Therefore, it would be prudent for Delhi to focus on building state-to-state relations in lieu of what now turns out to be its predilections to work with certain regional political entities and leaders across South Asia. A cooperative, rather than an intrusive, India can motivate other states to reciprocate the generosity regardless of whichever political parties come to power. In the long run, inter-states relationships based on amity, trust, and mutual respect can create such a mechanism where India, by virtue of its power and size, might assume the hierarchical position.
Hence, it is high time for India to recalibrate its South Asia policy and address new challenges without weakening its influence on its neighbors. India wants to appear friendly to its surrounding nations, as evidenced by Narendra Modi’s “neighbors first” policy. At the same time, India wants to earn respect from them. Striking a balance between the two is a tricky task, but not impossible. In fact, it is the art of diplomacy. Should India fail to devise a smart and timely South Asia policy, its competitor China will step in and tilt the balance of power in its favor. After all, it is Indian coercive diplomacy that has paved the way for China to gain a strong foothold in the Himalayan state. In a South Asia where China is emerging as a counterweight to Indian authoritativeness, India cannot afford to see that happen.