A surreal detour in neighbourly relations
After months of old-fashioned border disputes and relatively familiar counter-claims of geopolitical bad faith, India-Nepal relations took a surreal detour into the realms of mythology earlier this week.
On July 13, at the 206th birth anniversary celebration of Bhanubhakta Acharya (the poet who translated the Sanskrit epic Ramayana into Nepali) Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made the stunning claim the ancient text’s hero -- all-important Hindu deity, Rama -- “is Nepali, not Indian.”
Oli said Nepal had been “culturally oppressed. Our historical facts were distorted. We thought Sita got married to Prince Ram of India. But this is not true. Sita was married to Ram of an Ayodhya that is in Nepal. India created a fake Ayodhya.”
After considerable ridicule, including from within his own country, Oli retreated. His ministry of foreign affairs issued an official clarification that “the prime minister was simply highlighting the importance of further studies and research of the vast cultural geography the Ramayana represents to obtain facts [which] signify the bond of time-honoured cultural affinity between our two countries and peoples.”
Unfortunately, that episode is only the latest to plumb unseemly new lows in the India-Nepal relationship. All through the preceding week, for example, Indian television news channels broadcast scurrilous insinuations about the 68-year-old prime minister and 50-year-old Hou Yanqui, China’s ambassador in Kathmandu.
Building up behind the invective is an unprecedented decoupling, with huge implications for the future prospects of regional co-operation.
Shakti Sinha, the honorary director of Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies at MS University in Baroda, told me: “India and Nepal have historically allowed a level of people-to-people contact and mutual recognition that is rare in international relations. No passports, no visas ... citizens of Nepal join the Indian army, can work in India, even with the government, and are treated as citizens in all respects except for voting rights.”
But now, “Oli is changing that, and has gone a considerable way. You need passports to fly into Nepal. He is moving towards ending the national treatment clause by amending his citizenship laws, and by creating a boundary dispute of a major dimension (372 sq-km) he has ensured that this is one that cannot be ‘solved’ as India will not give up territory it controls.”
Sinha says: “One can imagine having to live next to a behemoth [so] the need to publicly stress independence from India is understandable. However, over the decades, this posturing has degenerated into a public anti-India stand, while seeking India’s help when in opposition. This cynicism is a direct outcome of the need to find ‘enemies’ to compensate for bad governance and poor economic outcomes. That said, India has not been on its best behaviour either, outsourcing its Nepal policy to individual politicians, diplomats, and intelligence agencies [but] we have not ‘lost’ Nepal; it was never ours to begin with.”
That viewpoint is shared by Constantino Xavier, an expert analyst of regional foreign and security policies at The Brookings Institution India Centre, who told me: “Ten years ago, there was too much bureaucratic engagement and a political deficit of engagement at the highest levels. Today it is the opposite: Prime Minister Modi has done an extraordinary political outreach to his counterparts, including in Nepal, but there has been a deficit of follow up and implementation.”
Xavier says: “This reflects India’s limitations in terms of diplomatic and economic capacity. Forget Nepal ... it’s impossible to run a country of 1.4 billion people that proclaims to be a leading power, with less than 1,000 diplomats. So it’s natural that there is now an increasing gap between the ambition of the PM to posit India as a regional power and the capacity to deliver on key infrastructure, energy, and transportation projects.”
To find out how this is playing out in elite political circles in Nepal, I contacted an extremely well-placed source in Kathmandu, who agreed to comment strictly off-the-record.
This person told me: “Oli is playing the nationalist card because he’s facing a strong challenge from inside his own party, so he needs a distraction and an appeal for popular support. He’s also got a long record of coming out with absurd and provocative remarks. The public appetite for that kind of thing has worn pretty thin, I think, but of course there are still people who lap it up.”
However, “Oli’s rise on a basically anti-India platform since 2015 has been greatly assisted by Indian mistakes. The blockade in 2015, right after the earthquake, was a massive blunder which pushed Kathmandu towards Beijing. It’s remarkable how quickly New Delhi’s deep reach dissolved after that. A lot of the decline in India’s influence in Nepal is self-inflicted.”
The bottom line is: “Paranoid fears about China are simplistic, but may be self-fulfilling. With chauvinist nationalists in government in both countries, the temptation to talk big for the domestic audience may win out.
The political and media dynamic in both countries is feeding a negative cycle, and the obnoxious blowhards on Indian cable news are doing a lot of harm -- they’re doing China’s work in Kathmandu better than anyone.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.