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Is India's big brother attitude bringing Nepal closer to China?

Nepal has reassured India that it will not allow anti-India activities from its territory along with the issued agreement between the two countries. Photograph: (DNA)

Delhi, India Aug 25, 2017, 07.07 AM (IST) Niharika Tagotra

In a reaffirmation of their bilateral ties, India and Nepal yesterday inked eight agreements on issues that ranged from countering drug trafficking in the region, assistance from the Indian side in the post-earthquake reconstruction activities to flood management, irrigation projects, as well as enhanced cooperation in the development of infrastructure in Nepal. In addition to the agreements made under the MoUs, the two sides also laid great emphasis on bolstering defence ties and enhancing mutual assistance in the domain of security, with Nepal reassuring India that it wouldn’t allow anti-India activities from its territory. It is also noteworthy that the two sides discussed issues relating to regional and subregional cooperation under the ambit of BIMSTEC and BBIN initiatives: two flagship multilateral projects initiated by India. 

The announcement of bilateral agreements between India and China comes at a time when India is facing a sharp recession of influence in its immediate neighbourhood.

The visit of the Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, and the subsequent announcement of bilateral agreements between the two countries comes at a time when India is facing a sharp recession of influence in its immediate neighbourhood. While the diminishing influence is an outcome of India’s own hegemonic tendencies in South Asia, the situation has been exacerbated by the growth of Chinese dominance in the region. With the announcement of its flagship Border and Road Initiative (BRI), China has been able to successfully use its economic clout to gain a strategic foothold in India’s immediate neighbourhood. So much so that in trying to find a middle ground between the two countries, and to balance the threat emanating from two overtly powerful neighbours, most of India’s neighbours appear to have drifted too close to the Chinese side.

For the smaller nations, India appears to be a far greater geopolitical threat than China does. The prevailing mistrust between India and its neighbours stem from the unresolved territorial disputes, a legacy of the colonial era, but their resolution has found little political will on the Indian side. The resolution process, instead, has only witnessed incremental changes, something that has worked to dent India’s credibility in its neighbourhood. Besides, India’s continued meddling in the domestic affairs of smaller countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has generated concerns over the issue of political sovereignty in these countries.

The drift to the Chinese side made itself evident on two occasions; when India was isolated on its stand against the BRI as well as on the current impasse at the Doklam tri-junction. The country has found very little support forthcoming from its immediate neighbours on critical issues relating to its territorial sovereignty and integrity. The most telling of these was Nepal’s decision to take part in the OBOR, despite India’s misgivings, as well as its decision to not take any sides in the current standoff.

China has made substantial inroads into Nepal, with the country only very recently gaining the status of the highest FDI contributor, accounting for over 60 per cent of the total FDI commitment in the country. Besides, it has also undertaken some very important infrastructure related development initiatives and is looking to flood the Nepalese markets with Chinese products, outclassing and outsmarting India’s investments in the country. 

For the smaller nations, India appears to be a far greater geopolitical threat than China does.

The bilateral relations between India and Nepal, on the other hand, have been plagued with a deep mistrust, with the Nepalese side accusing India of micro-meddling in its political affairs. India’s increased interference in the political situation of Nepal and its staunch support to the Madhesis has created a scenario, wherein the chaos in Nepal’s domestic policy has had a very negative impact on its ties with India.

India’s reluctant acknowledgement of Nepal’s new constitution and its failure to reign in the Madhesi parties to help streamline the process of political transformation in Nepal post-2006 stems from the country’s domestic imperatives. Owing to the cultural proximity of Nepali Madhesis and natives of UP and Bihar, a lot of India’s policies towards Nepal have been guided by the concerns emanating from its bordering states.

The 2015 economic blockade imposed on Nepal to coerce it into accepting the Madhesi demands boomeranged in India’s face when the then PM KP Oli decided to look for an alternative and reduce its strategic dependence on India. This was the precise moment when China was allowed a foot-in-the-door in Nepal’s polity and the support to its beleaguered neighbour is what constituted a watershed moment in the evolution of India-Nepal ties.

India cannot pick a fight for sovereignty related concerns with China while meting out the exact same treatment to its neighbours in South Asia.

Significantly, the recently announced bilateral agreements between the two nations which have conspicuously left out any offer of assistance in constitutional reforms or political transformation signal how India might have actually picked up a few foreign policy lessons along the way. PM Modi’s expression of confidence in the ability of Nepalese leaders to implement the constitution in its true spirit is also indicative of a change in tactic by India, which will do best to step further away from Nepal’s domestic politics. Any meddling in its internal policy will push Nepal further into the ambit of Chinese sphere of influence.

PM Deuba’s visit provides India with an opportunity to recalibrate its approach towards its smaller neighbours; this would include an expression of confidence in their political leadership, respecting their political sovereignty and an increased assurance of economic and political support in case of any eventuality. India cannot pick a fight for sovereignty related concerns with China while meting out the exact same treatment to its neighbours in South Asia. The incrementalism in its bilateral ties with its immediate neighbours must be replaced with recalibrate-and-reboot strategy. Specifically, to ally Nepal’s concerns, India must come up with a more consistent Nepal policy, along with the lines of greater people to people contact, enhanced economic assistance and keeping its domestic politics at an arms' length. 

As structural outcomes of its economic rise, China is bound to exercise a more muscular policy in its neighbourhood, something that made itself evident in the Doklam standoff. However, to win this battle over narratives in South Asia, India will have to correct its historical faux pas and take on the role of a more benevolent hegemon.

Niharika Tagotra

Niharika Tagotra Phd Researcher, International Politics, JNU, New Delhi

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