Bullying Nepal

It can be a surprise to consider that India has had tense relations with virtually all its neighbours, at some point or the other. This runs contrary its stated intent to live peacefully with other nations. In fact, critics, including Indian commentators, have pointed out that Indian policy towards its neighbours seems to be based on a simple formulation: don’t mess with the powerful ones (read China), and try to exert unwarranted influence on smaller nations. Nothing exemplifies the utter myopia of such a policy better than what New Delhi is doing with Nepal right now. That Himalayan nation is one with which India could claim to have deep links, and yet no other country has complained as often of India’s ‘big brother’ attitude. The current blockade imposed on Nepal, which has led to shortages of all sorts, including fuel, is deepening resentment. It almost seems as if the mandarins in New Delhi are getting carried away by their ‘emerging power’ rhetoric, and ending up harming their own long-term interests.

Nepal, despite all the problems, has been a model of how a state transitions from conflict to vibrant – though complicated – democracy. Much of the credit for that goes to the Nepalese people who forced the political class, including the Maoists, to avoid a breakdown and press ahead with the formulation of a Constitution. India, incredibly, wants to have a say in how that Constitution is framed: and the current crisis has to do with India’s so-called espousal of Madeshi (people living in the plains) rights since they have close links with neighbouring states of India. New Delhi is trying to blame the ‘blockade’ on the protests by sections of Madeshis over the division of Nepal into seven new states. The people of Nepal, however, are clearly blaming India for trying to coerce it.

Oil shortages are beginning to hurt ordinary people (some angry protestors even sarcastically ‘donated’ oil to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu), and pharma companies are warning drug production would soon be hit due to shortages of materials caused by the blockade. Ultimately, this will force Nepal to seek alternative routes, to seek to break the stranglehold (since it is surrounded by India on three sides) and forge closer links with China. An Indian commentator has called India’s policy ‘sledgehammer diplomacy’, and it will be no surprise if the notion of India being the bully in the region is buttressed.