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From dependence to interdependence

An editorial from the Kathmandu Post looks at the relationship between Nepal and India.

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Updated: March 14, 2018

Prof Mahendra P Lama of Jawaharlal Nehru University is a highly regarded academic and intellectual, and is well known in South Asia. He recently published an article in The Kathmandu Post analysing the unique relationship between Nepal and India with the hope that it “could thus move from dependence to interdependence”.

Lama outlines four interactive terrains between Nepal and India, namely people-to-people level, civil society level, business-commercial level and government level.

The big idea is that the government-to-government relationship should help integrate the three other terrains so that there is “Neighbourhood Nirvana”. Clearly, the government-to-governmental level has an important role, and is an important determining variable in the whole process.

It is true that the relationship between Nepal and India has always remained deep and friendly at the people-to-people level. There is an invisible civilisational link that binds us all the way from the misty heights and the splendour and magnificence of the Himalayas (Himabat Khand), the abode of Lord Shiva, Muktinath and Pashupatinath to Bishwonath and Rameswaram in India.

No government or leader in either country can change this reality. Nevertheless, a transition – in Lama’s words “from dependence to interdependence” – in line with the new imperatives of the 21st century requires that we attempt to understand each other’s national interests and try to define a common space where we can work together for the benefit and prosperity of our peoples.

The tenor and strength of Nepal-India relations is an integrated whole consisting of four elements, and they are: political, economic, security and culture.

A proper appreciation and analysis of all the four elements, keeping in perspective the geostrategic reality of the region, can be the way forward in the future.

Emphasising one or the other while ignoring the totality gives a partial perspective that can be either highly sentimental or deeply dysfunctional. For example, consider the relationship between Nepal and India during the last few years. When there was an earthquake in Nepal two years ago, India was the first country to respond with humanitarian help.

Within hours of the disaster, Prime Minister Modi was in touch with Nepal’s prime minister, and the Indian government was ready to provide all necessary assistance. This was a magnanimous gesture befitting a great nation, and it was deeply appreciated by the Nepali people.

And yet the same government, a few months later, was seen by many in Nepal as being involved in a crude model of coercive diplomacy (the unannounced blockade) because the views of an Indian diplomat on the new Nepali constitution that was going to be promulgated did not find a favourable response among Nepali politicians, one of whom is now the prime minister of the country, and the second is impatiently waiting for his turn within the next five years.

How could a friendly nation, that was so big-hearted and generous after the earthquake suddenly adopt a policy that ignored the pain and suffering of millions of people just next door? This is a riddle that remains unsolved.

The essential point is that a dialogue on the perception of national interests between the two countries is essential if our people-to-people and business-to-business relationships are to be the basis of our partnership in the future.

Politically, both Nepal and India are committed to liberal democratic values and institutions. Therefore, a politically stable and democratic Nepal is the best guarantee that India can have for a strong friend in its north that remains sensitive to its national interests.

Any manoeuvring that goes against this logic will yield results that will be dysfunctional for both nations and will only put negative pressures on the other terrains that Lama mentions in his paper.

Similarly, on the economic front which should also include the exploitation of Himalayan water resources for the benefit of both nations, a serious dialogue on the nature of the evolving relationship is in order.

If one looks at the structure of the trade relationship between Nepal and India, it comes close to a mercantilist model of the 19th century that is simply not sustainable in the future.

If we are all serious about Neighbourhood Nirvana, perhaps we should jointly put more emphasis on the economics of the neighbourhood, which seems to be neglected in our region.

As the leader of the pack, India should not hesitate to think of innovative strategies that provide space to all South Asian nations to be partners in the growth trajectory of its economy. In practical terms, Nepal and India should come up with ideas that help Nepal to obtain a share of the value supply chain in South Asia.

This would help Nepal become more than a nation that is a market for Indian manufactured goods while sending its young men to work as cheap labour in the Middle East to manage the ever-increasing trade deficit.

Sadly, this focus has been missing among Nepali leaders, and the often-reported use of non-tariff barriers by India does not help to generate an atmosphere of vibrant business-to-business relationship that Lama emphasises in his paper.

What will be needed for Neighbourhood Nirvana in the future is a dynamic approach that will link the industrial development of Nepal with the rapid growth of the Indian economy based on the logic of product sharing and product fragmentation that is very much a part of the globalisation phenomena that has gained momentum in the last few decades.

A determined move in this direction was undertaken in the Trade Treaty in the mid-1990s between the two countries. However, the basic thrust of this treaty was ignored after five years when a new treaty was signed. Perhaps it is time to take a look at that treaty again as a basis for future direction.

Similarly, on the question of connectivity, the historic agreement between Nepal and India allowing the use of Indian territory from Kakarbhitta in Nepal to reach Bangladesh was a breakthrough widely appreciated for its new thrust on regional connectivity. And yet, after almost 20 years, its potential remains unused.

A vision for tomorrow requires not only stability in Nepal’s relationship with India but also a willingness for renewal and growth that is focused on the prosperity and welfare of the people of both countries.

In order to strengthen trust and goodwill at all levels, both countries should be prepared to take new initiatives to review and then renew their relationship in view of changing geopolitics, technology and production systems.

A willingness for this kind of renewal should form the foundation of growth in our relationship. Take, for example, the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950. The notion of stability requires that, no matter which party comes to power, our commitment to peace and friendship between our two peoples will not change.

However, the expression of national interests between two sovereign nations will require a willingness to review and, if needed, alter the various processes, mechanism and structures in line with the changing requirements of time. This is the only way for the growth of a relationship to eliminate the trust deficit and move from dependence to interdependence in the future.

(This article was written by Prakash Chandra Lohani and originally appeared in the Kathmandu Post)

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