Debating India

Nepal without strings

Tuesday 6 June 2006, by RAJA MOHAN*C.

The Indian establishment’s familiarity with the visiting prime minister of Nepal, Girija Prasad Koirala, should not obscure a simple new reality. The ageing Koirala today represents a Nepal that is very different from the one we have known all these decades.

Steeled in the fire of a successful pro-democracy movement, the Himalayan Kingdom is now in the middle of a complex transition to a republic in all but name. While Koirala needs all the help he can get from India, the last thing he needs is a display of New Delhi’s instinctive paternalism. New Delhi will have to demonstrably shed that attitude if it needs to construct a successful policy towards Nepal in the coming days. The old ?hegemon-protectorate’ relationship is no longer sustainable between New Delhi and Kathmandu. Nepal has changed irrevocably in the 19 days of the pro-democracy agitation. That the Nepalese stood up bravely against the shoot-at-sight orders of King Gyanendra and refused to compromise with the monarchy despite the advice from India and the international community, has injected a new sense of self-confidence in Kathmandu.

Under intense popular pressure the restored Nepalese parliament has quickly cut the monarchy to size, converted the nation into a secular state and, yesterday, it declared untouchability and caste discrimination illegal. These decisions reflect the demands for a fundamental reorganisation of the 200-odd years old Nepali state. And the new leaders of Nepal seem confident that they can write their own future. As the age of feudalism and upper caste control in Nepal unravels, India’s own policy towards Kathmandu can no longer rest on a small trans-border Thakur fraternity, or a manipulation of the bilateral relationship by a small elite across the border.

In retrospect, India’s paternalism towards Nepal was a burden rather than an advantage. New Delhi got into the bad habit of deciding what is good for Kathmandu rather than letting Nepal decide for itself. The dependent relationship, in turn, encouraged the Nepali political classes to blame India for all their failures. Posturing against India became an obsession and the Nepali elite was prepared to cut its nose to spite the Indian face. India now has an unprecedented opportunity to bury that dismal legacy and reconstruct the bilateral relationship with Nepal on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests. This involves a normalisation of the relations even as India and democratic Nepal move towards a deeper and more complex engagement in the coming years. The unfolding transformation of Nepal for the first time in decades has marginalised deeply held anti-India sentiment in that country. But mistakes on India’s part now could easily re-ignite that sentiment.

Three major issues stand out for discussion with Prime Minister Koirala this week - economic assistance, facilitation of the transition to a new political order, and creating a new basis for a long-term political relationship between New Delhi and Kathmandu. India’s announcement of a large aid package is expected to be the highlight of Koirala’s visit to New Delhi. India had sensibly held back from rushing to announce that package and wait for the Nepalese government to define its own priorities. India should know from its own long experience of receiving international economic assistance that aid rarely wins either love or gratitude; it often breeds political suspicion and resentment.

India’s talk of a ?Himalayan Marshall Plan’ has already evoked negative commentary from the left in Nepal. One hopes India has carefully designed its aid package to address the real needs of the Nepali people and is focussed on capacity building and infrastructure development, especially road building in the Himalayan nation. If “helping Nepal help itself” should be the guiding principle for Indian aid, New Delhi needs to do a lot more than dispensing money. Prime Minister Mamohan Singh must make a genuine commitment to Koirala on dismantling the huge number of non-tariff barriers that India has erected against Nepal. Trade facilitation on the Indo-Nepal border, zero duty access to much of Nepal’s produce, and promotion of Indian and international investment across the border are more important for the long-term economic development of that country than any amount of aid New Delhi proclaims this week.

India will also have to be even more sensitive in defining its own role and that of the international community in the difficult transition towards the planned election of a constituent assembly in the next few months. Instead of letting its traditional opposition to international involvement in the subcontinent and reluctance to contribute to peacekeeping within the neighbourhood cloud its judgement, India must find a fine balance in responding to the new security challenge in Nepal. Working with the international community has helped India and the Nepali people to prevent King Gyanendra from playing one great power against the other. Similarly letting the UN play a carefully defined role in the Nepali peace process could be helpful. India must also undertake a substantive role in addressing the challenge of arms management in the transition period. India’s own participation must also be designed to strengthen the capabilities of Nepal rather than replace them.

Finally, India must publicly signal during Koirala’s visit that New Delhi is prepared to consider alternatives to the 1950 treaty that has guided bilateral relations all these decades. The 1950 treaty was never an end in itself for India. But an independent, strong, and economically vibrant Nepal will remain an enduring Indian interest. While Koirala may not raise the issue, it is in India’s interest to publicly communicate to the Nepali people at this moment that it has no desire to hang on to a treaty that many across the border see as hegemonic. Rather than wait for the treaty to become an issue once again in Nepal, India must offer Koirala the prospect of building future ties between the two nations on the basis of a new treaty that is equal and more representative of the times we are in.

See online : The Indian Express

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