Democratic principles can serve both Indian and Nepali interests

Democratic principles can serve both Indian and Nepali interests

SAM Staff,

Kathmandu’s almost all elitist debates over Nepal-India relations hastily raise a question of whether this relationship served any of Nepal’s interests. Or they invariably focus on how the Indian foreign policy infringed upon Nepal’s vital interests, independence and even sovereignty. It is only natural that Indian foreign policy and diplomatic operations serve Indian interests. If Nepal wishes to protect its interests, it must have its own policies and strategies.

If some specific features of foreign policy operations serve the long-term interests of a nation well, such a policy plank becomes more stable and predictable. It unquestionably serves the interests of that particular nation. Moreover, such policy stability and predictability also help the nation to devise an appropriate policy response to protect and further its own long-term national interests. In this sense, a successful Indian foreign policy that is able to serve the Indian interests better can arguably serve Nepal’s interests as well, except in a few cases where the two clash.

As Nepal and India, both jointly and separately, are now working to review their relations in their entirety, a few questions must be asked. Despite our repeated claims that bilateral relations improved and reached newer heights with each high-level visit, like the recent one by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal, why do they often unexpectedly hit rock bottom? Has the Indian foreign policy served India’s interests, let alone Nepal’s? And has Nepal often been a victim more because of India’s foreign policy failures than Nepal’s own?

The flaws

The Indian independence achieved in 1947 might have fundamentally changed many of its policies, expect for its Nepal policy. Like in the colonial times, every regime in New Delhi spends a lot of energy installing a supposedly loyal man at the helm of Nepal’s government, regardless of his political orientation. At the core of this strategy is the perennial China-phobia, articulated as India’s ‘security concern’. There is no question that this concern is real and Nepal must be duly sensitive to it. But India has never believed that Nepal’s strengthened statehood could address this concern better than any henchman could. That is where the first flaw in Indian foreign policy lies.

The second flaw is the choice of its foreign policy instrument. The scenario is almost akin to a popular Nepali proverb that says: ‘A musk deer runs around the world in search of the source of the scent that comes from within it.’ What could be such an instrument that India neither recognises nor employs for its own benefit? It is unquestionably democracy.

India is not only the world’s recognised largest democracy, but a reasonably functional federal structure that accommodates diverse cultures, religions, languages and ethnicities distributed across a relatively large territory. Federalism has practically been a binding polity for a single Indian identity and national unity ever since its independence from British colonialism.

During the 45-year-long Cold War that ended in 1990, the United States employed democracy as the main vehicle for its foreign policy operation and also as an ideological instrument to counter communism. In the same vein, the values, practices and ethos of democracy could potentially be India’s single best high-value ‘export’, particularly to its neighbours in the sub-continent. By now, this may well have become a double-edged sword. Because, on the one hand, by helping smaller neighbours to adopt and uphold democratic practices and norms, India might in turn have gained the much-craved strategic influence in the region. Honestly promoted democratic regimes would have automatically addressed its prime concern of security. On the other hand, it would have automatically shrunk China’s political space, since the term democracy itself is anathema to Chinese communist authoritarianism.

But throughout history, the ruling Indian political class perhaps grossly overlooked these emulative and expandable values of both democracy and federalism. Instead of resorting to this more civilised, constructive and less intrusive means of regional and international engagement, the Indian establishment, more often than not, is inclined to circumvent democratic best practices and ideals in both its domestic and foreign affairs.

Incidents like the imposition of a state of emergency in 1975, repeated allegations of infringements on intellectual freedom, mainly after the right-wing BJP emphatically took the political centre stage, and the very recent censorship on media for reporting an ‘alternative’ viewpoint on nationalism may be dismissed as mere hiccups or issues related purely to domestic political management.

But, even on the external front, the Indian response to democratic exercises in the neighbourhood has often been flippant, and at times evidently detrimental to the core principles of democracy. The latest example is that India not only failed to appreciate the adoption of the new Nepali constitution by a majority of more than 90 percent vote of a popularly elected Constituent Assembly, but dubbed the entire process a ‘tyranny of numbers’. Even the current insistence that Nepal should amend the constitution to make it ‘more inclusive’ according to India’s prescription is more bullying than effecting a democratic outcome based on the strength of the Tarai-Madhesh’s representation in the House.

In other countries of the region too, India’s preference of regimes depends not on their democratic character, or lack of it, but their perceived degree of loyalty to New Delhi. In Bhutan, for example, India has been fully backing the Druk regime, which has suppressed pro-democracy movements and orchestrated ethnic cleansing of Bhutanese of Nepali origin since 1989. Such demeanours surely have serious and long-term ramifications both on India’s credentials as an institutionalised democracy and on regional political stability, including that of Nepal.

This phenomena is especially worth mentioning here, because India has vowed to make democracy a cardinal cord of its newly-defined relations with the global superpower, the United States. But, in clear contrast, the same India as a regional superpower has not been willing to extend a similar cord in furthering bilateral relations with its immediate neighbours.

A change in strategy

Has the Indian foreign policy actually proved to be a failure or is it mere exaggeration? In the case of Nepal, it can be positively argued that installing a ‘yes-man’ in Kathmandu has been a constant failure, even in Indian evaluation. While cultivating people like Matrika Prasad Koirala in the early 1950s, Subarna Shumsher or Surya Prasad Upadhyay in the late 1950s, Surya Bahadur Thapa in the 1970s and the 1980s, Girija Prasad Koirala in the 1990s, KP Oli and Baburam Bhattarai in the 2000s and Pushpa Kamal Dahal and a handful of Madhesi leaders in the 2010s, India never cared about their democratic credentials. Nor did it assess the effects of its action on both India and Nepal.

The ultimate outcome is before us. Nepali politics is now hugely dominated by communists of a dozen hues. The ongoing Naxalite movement in India wants to emulate Nepali Maoists’ success even if one accepted the official Indian hypothesis that the ultra-reds on the two sides of the border have no links at all. India still believes in controlling Nepali politics by imposing a cruel economic blockade, which has only given rise to three generations of anti-Indianism in Nepal. Paradoxically, this is how Indian foreign policy is creating greater space for Chinese manoeuvring. Whether these existing/emerging tenets are better or worse for Nepal is a different question altogether. But they are surely not good for India.

Therefore, instead of spending a lot of time gauging whether some exchange of visits enhanced bilateral relationship or which ‘installed’ man can better protect Indian interests, both Nepal and India should first agree to change the entire narrative of our relationship that creates a win-win situation. A change in Indian strategy from imposing hegemonic control to extending democratic principles in its neighbourhood can save it from repeated foreign policy failures and serve its interests better. As a valuable by-product, this will also help resolve Nepal’s constitutional crisis.

Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst


[The article appeared in ‘The Kathmandu Post’ on Nov 8, 2006]