In these trying times for Nepal, the reputation of the country’s Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai, has faced mounting strain. Over the past two months, as Nepal’s Constituent Assembly buckled empty-handed under
him, Bhattarai has taken an onslaught of attacks to quit from the opposition, the political media, and his own party. So far he has resisted, doggedly glued to the helm as a caretaker PM. Rhetoric from opposition heads has grown steadily nastier, opening with Bhattarai’s apparent disregard for political consensus, and now directed at his alleged dependence on Indian support. On the surface, this offensive draws yet more attention to Nepal’s power-hungry politics: leaders serve quick terms, only to be pushed aside in the name of political accords as another party head snatches office. This is politics as usual in Nepal.
But when Madhav Nepal of the United Marxist-Leninist party pulled the topic of India into the fray, he bared an important underlying dynamic. Nepal today is gripped by an anxiety that India is pulling the strings of its internal affairs, and particularly of its vulnerable democratic politics. Playing on this paranoia is a potent weapon against the PM, and Indian-educated Bhattarai is all too easy prey.
The official proclamations of excellent relations between Nepal and India—mostly flourishing trade and strong diplomatic ties—belie an underlying tension: Nepal is decidedly the dependent party in the relationship. Although trade with India forms a gargantuan chunk of its net imports and exports, Nepal makes up a measly fraction of India’s, amounting to a total trade deficit of $1.08 billion (compared to a deficit of $1.04 billion, barring India). Nepal’s currency has been based on the Indian rupee for over a decade. And Nepal is party to a series of poorly negotiated treaties that are stacked against it. Its hydropower agreements, for instance, are widely thought to give India a huge leg up.
India hasn’t hesitated to flex its superiority either. In 1990, in response to Nepal’s import of Chinese arms (which Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian PM at the time, claimed was a tacit violation of ‘the spirit’ of the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty), India forced an economic blockade that plunged Nepal into rebellion against its own government. India’s huge economic upper hand has turned it haughtier over the years, meddling in Nepali politics by showcasing preferences and backing factions that meet its fancy. More recently, India buoyed an unpopular monarchy until it was overthrown in 2007, and as evidenced by the Bhattarai saga, has continued to intrude.
India’s ever-present hegemony means that its presence in any Nepalese affair is guaranteed to ruffle feathers. Earlier this week, rumors floated that Nepal was considering employing Indian contractors to renovate its all-but-decaying airport, a Twitter firestorm went off, decrying the government’s ‘sellout’ to India. New Delhi’s overbearing shadow has conditioned any poking around in Nepal’s affairs to sound off alarms—indeed, Nepal’s sovereignty, at any scale, could be at stake.
Over three centuries, Nepal has walked a fine line, balancing both India and China, yet deeper cultural and economic ties with the former have kept it under Delhi’s thumb. Counter-intuitively, mending relations with India might require Kathmandu to keep a distance and lick the wounds of an inferiority complex born of decades in dependency. Already, Nepal has begun to woo a more-than-willing Beijing, a tryst that promises greater economic—and concomitantly, political—autonomy. Strengthening these ties is overwhelmingly in Nepal’s favor. Eschewing India also offers a welcome updraft to Nepal’s development ambitions, of which key components—road construction and hydropower projects particularly—have been stalled because of India’s strategic interests and Nepal’s suspicions.
But shying away from India’s gaze carries requisite challenges. Nepal is a valuable buffer zone, prompting India to try and keep it in check, including its attempts to dampen Chinese influence. China itself is wary of what shifts in Nepal’s allegiance might do on its relations with India: Chinese Prime Minister Wen, on a January visit to Nepal, said he had no intention of disrupting Nepal’s relationship with India.
By all accounts, a northward shift of influence promises more freedom for Nepal. Of course, stymieing India’s clout doesn’t mean severing ties—that’s neither realistic nor beneficial for either nation. It entails, rather, Nepal’s loosening of India’s grip by augmenting its other political relationships. Detaching slowly from India’s sphere of influence will also help to allay the paranoia cultivated over centuries of influence. In an increasingly globalized politics, China could be but the first step in Nepal’s branching out.
So the Indian Economic Times’ advice in late June that the hegemon shelve the ‘big-brotherly attitude’ it’s been accused of, came well-timed. But ET frames the case far too mildly: the past century of official ties between the two countries has been defined by a profound asymmetry in India’s favor, and Nepal is deeply displeased. Crafting a more balanced long-term relationship with its northerly neighbor should be on India’s agenda if it wants to gain the trust of the Nepali population and its leaders.
And were anything to go awry between the two nations or change the regional balance of power, a modernizing Nepal would also do well to be weaned off its hegemonic neighbor.