Originally Published 2015-11-17 10:23:15 Published on Nov 17, 2015
Despite the promise of 2014, India's neighbourhood policy has run into some confusion. There are many examples. With Pakistan, India is paying for the Narendra Modi government's initial missteps.
How to deal with foreign policy headaches from neighbourhood

Despite the promise of 2014, India's neighbourhood policy has run into some confusion. There are many examples. With Pakistan, India is paying for the Narendra Modi government's initial missteps. It now sees the need to talk, if only to manage international headlines, but the problem is Islamabad and Rawalpindi realise this anxiety and are playing difficult. They are holding out for New Delhi to make a larger concession than may have been otherwise warranted.

In the Maldives, India is caught in a hard game against competing Chinese influence. India's favoured candidate for the leadership of the Indian Ocean nation is Mohamed Nasheed. Unfortunately, he has been sidelined and is in prison. Indian diplomats have had to jockey for space and find friends among the current, post-Nasheed political stakeholders in the Maldives.

This has resulted in a tactical neglect of Nasheed, but hopefully not a strategic one or a permanent departure from where India wants the bilateral relationship to be. Yet, to focus solely on the beleaguered Nasheed for the moment and resort to non-engagement would mean repeating the mistake made in Myanmar in the 1990s. That only ended up reducing the Indian footprint and creating a vacuum others filled.

The most worrying case is that of Nepal. India and Nepal have an ancient relationship that has a variety of elements: government-to-government, people-to-people, business-to-business, cultural and social. Key politicians and influencers have connections on both sides of the largely open border. In good times, all this can be a force multiplier for formal diplomacy. In the past few months, it has unfortunately ended up sending mixed messages and resulted in a mutual misreading.

What went wrong? As the process of finalising the constitution in Kathmandu reached a climax, the political and social elites of Nepal, the so-called "hill people", got carried away with the momentum and framed a document that was plain unequal to the ethnic minorities of their country and went back on promises made earlier. What didn't help was informal consultation between Indian and Nepalese politicians, many of whom had caste and social affinities. This led the elites in Kathmandu to misperceive how the situation would be seen in New Delhi.

In India, the government failed to anticipate the pace and direction of the constitutional process. As a result, there was delay in conveying that whatever some political friends may have told each other, the Indian system and the Indian prime minister could never agree to or bless a constitution that was so patently unfair to smaller groups such as the Madhesis and the Tharus, to name but two.

The Bihar election further muddied waters. Madhesis have age-old relations with Bihar and the Modi government's strong reaction was interpreted by some as merely posturing till the votes had been counted. That far greater principles were at stake was just not recognised. The election in Bihar is over and positions haven't really shifted. They can't; no Indian prime minister, Modi or otherwise, and irrespective of his party's stakes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, can live with Nepal's constitution as it is.

There are those who accuse India of being two-faced, of pushing for greater proportional representation in Nepal while rejecting that system at home. This is a narrow and incorrect view. The liberal constitutional principles that India is urging in Nepal are entirely in keeping with what it has adopted in its own polity to do justice to a diverse, pluralistic and democratic society: linguistic states, reservations for scheduled tribes and castes, fair delimitation of legislative constituencies rather than a gerrymandering that favours one community or ethnicity.

The specific methods may vary, but it is these principles, ones with appeal and applicability across south Asian democracies, that India is nudging Nepal to consider. It can be easily done, with some amendments to the constitution and a redrawing of legislative boundaries that currently crowd out groups such as the Madhesis and Tharus.

Next there is a security concern at India's doorstep. There are reports of Madhesi youth turning restive and tending towards violence. It will take one ambush of a police posse or one overdone clampdown by Nepalese authorities to light an uncontrollable fire. In a worst-case scenario, what happened in Sri Lanka could repeat itself, except there wouldn't even be a narrow sea in between. Obviously nobody would want such an eventuality.

Finally, there is the risk to growing India-Nepal economic engagement. Both countries can benefit from Nepal's hydropower potential. It can be the answer to India's clean energy quest and make Nepal one of Asia's most prosperous countries. The development of the Ganga basin, a regionalisation of Namami Gange as it were, is a related prize that awaits the neighbours.

For all this to happen, India needs Nepal to trust it. However, those energy evacuation corridors and river projects will run from Nepal to India right through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As such, it is in Kathmandu's interest to win the trust of the Indian cousins of Madhesis - not to speak of Madhesis themselves.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Times of India, November 14, 2015

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