Hill bud­dies

The Hindu Business Line - - FRONT PAGE - PARUL CHAN­DRA

With China prowl­ing around in its back­yard, In­dia rolled out the red car­pet for Nepalese prime min­is­ter Sher Ba­hadur Deuba dur­ing his re­cent five-day state visit to the coun­try. In­dia hopes to not just counter grow­ing Chi­nese in­flu­ence in Nepal but also to fur­ther mend bi­lat­eral ties that turned de­cid­edly frosty af­ter New Delhi im­posed an un­of­fi­cial eco­nomic block­ade on the land­locked coun­try in 2015.

Though In­dia de­nied im­pos­ing a block­ade, New Delhi’s ac­tive back­ing of the de­mand for ad­e­quate po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion by the Mad­he­sis liv­ing in Nepal’s Terai (plains) re­gion did not go down well with Kathmandu. The con­se­quent hard­ship to the peo­ple only served to stoke anti-In­dia sen­ti­ment. Faced with fuel short­age, the Nepalese gov­ern­ment then headed by KP Oli, was quick to turn to China for help. Beijing glee­fully stepped in. Since then, New Delhi has been acutely wor­ried about the ex­pand­ing Chi­nese foot­print in the Hi­malayan coun­try.

Some re­as­sur­ance

Nepalese for­eign min­is­ter Kr­ishna Ba­hadur Ma­hara’s dec­la­ra­tion that “Nepal would not get dragged into this or that side in the bor­der dis­pute” in the back­drop of the Dok­lam stand-off, as also Deuba’s as­sur­ance dur­ing his re­cent visit that no anti-In­dia ac­tiv­ity would be al­lowed on its soil, should re­as­sure New Delhi.

But even though Deuba and his Nepali Congress Party are per­ceived to be pro-In­dia un­like the Oli dis­pen­sa­tion, it’s clear that New Delhi isn’t will­ing to take chances. Con­se­quently, In­dia went all out to woo Deuba with prom­ises of swift and ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion of con­nec­tiv­ity, in­fra­struc­ture and devel­op­ment projects as well as con­tin­u­ing help with post-earth­quake re­con­struc­tion as­sis­tance, apart from ar­rang­ing his visits to Tiru­pati and Bodh Gaya.

Of the eight agree­ments inked dur­ing the Deuba visit, four were to ren­der fur­ther as­sis­tance for quake re­con­struc­tion work. This aid di­plo­macy will see In­dia help Nepal build 50,000 houses, ex­e­cute 157 projects in the health sec­tor and help re­con­struct 70 schools and 28 ma­jor cul­tural cen­tres. This way, In­dia is hop­ing to re­duce the ‘trust deficit’ which widened af­ter the 2015 block­ade.

Not an easy task

This will be no easy task for New Delhi as it tries to gen­tly ‘nudge’ Kathmandu into ac­com­mo­dat­ing the as­pi­ra­tions of the Mad­he­sis, who com­prise one-third of Nepal’s pop­u­la­tion. The Pa­hadis and the indige­nous Jan­jatis, in turn, com­prise the other one-third each of Nepals’s de­mo­graphic pro­file.

In­dia, while be­ing acutely aware of Nepal’s com­plex and di­verse so­ci­ety and the as­pi­ra­tions of its peo­ple, has been bat­ting for the Mad­he­sis for long. But their de­mand is at odds with the his­tor­i­cal con­cept of hill na­tion­al­ism which speaks of ‘One lan­guage, one dress, one king and one coun­try’, a slo­gan coined by King Ma­hen­dra and which is now seen as be­ing ‘ex­clu­sivist’ in na­ture.

In­dia is also wor­ried that any dis­tur­bance in the Terai could af­fect peace and sta­bil­ity in Bi­har and UP given that the two states share long bor­ders with Nepal and deep cul­tural and fa­mil­ial ties with the Mad­he­sis. Al­ready, there is a nascent se­ces­sion­ist move­ment that’s taken root in the Terai which be­lieves that the cre­ation of a sep­a­rate coun­try will help address Mad­he­sis as­pi­ra­tions for greater po­lit­i­cal power and eco­nomic progress. This could queer the pitch for In­dia. How­ever, each time In­dia pushes for the con­cerns of Mad­he­sis to be ad­dressed, it finds Kathmandu pulling out the China card. There­fore, the care­fully worded joint state­ment is­sued dur­ing Deuba’s visit took note of the In­dia’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the Nepalese gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts “to take all sec­tions of so­ci­ety on board in the Con­sti­tu­tion im­ple­men­ta­tion process and in es­tab­lish­ing Nepal as a fed­eral, demo­cratic repub­lic”.

New Delhi’s as­sid­u­ous ef­forts to re­as­sure Kathmandu that it only has the in­ter­ests of Nepal in mind also found re­flec­tion in For­eign Sec­re­tary S Jais­hankar’s re­marks af­ter the Deuba-Modi meet­ing, when he re­it­er­ated Modi’s pol­icy of ‘Neigh­bou­hood First’ and ‘Sabke Saath, Sabka Vikas’.

While all this sounds good, what Kathamandu will be re­ally look­ing for is the trans­la­tion of words into ac­tion given New Delhi’s abysmal track record in project im­ple­men­ta­tion in Nepal. This has also con­trib­uted to the trust deficit with the per­cep­tion in Kathmandu be­ing that while In­dia prom­ises to build projects, their ex­e­cu­tion is ex­tremely tardy. For in­stance, the Panchesh­war mul­ti­pur­pose project has been hang­ing fire for two decades with the two sides fail­ing to fi­nalise a De­tailed Project Re­port. New Delhi must en­sure it pushes for it now that the two prime min­is­ters have di­rected of­fi­cials to fi­nalise the DPR within the next one month. In­dia stands to ben­e­fit hugely from this project with the power gen­er­ated from it to be shared equally be­tween the two coun­tries be­sides ac­cru­ing ir­ri­ga­tion and flood-con­trol ben­e­fits.

Seek­ing to have greater eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion with Nepal, In­dia will also need to de­liver on its as­sur­ance of swift com­ple­tion of two on-go­ing cross-bor­der rail con­nec­tiv­ity projects: the Jayana­gar-Bi­jalpur-Bardibas and the Jog­ban­iBi­rat­na­gar rail-links.

Pri­or­ity is to co­op­er­ate

This apart, New Delhi will have to ex­am­ine in what man­ner it can co­op­er­ate with Nepal on “pri­or­ity projects”, among them the Kushi­na­garLumbini-Kapilavastu and BardibasBir­gunj rail links, upgra­da­tion of the Bir­gunj-Path­laiya-Narayang­hat and But­wal-Pokhara roads into ex­press­ways, an in­ter­na­tional air­port at Ni­j­gadh and mo­torable bridges on the Ma­hakali. Other rail links and road con­nec­tiv­ity projects too need to be ex­e­cuted swiftly if In­dia wants to con­vey the se­ri­ous­ness of its in­ten­tions to part­ner Nepal in its eco­nomic growth. Else China will ea­gerly step in with aid and in­fra­struc­ture. Kathmandu has of­ten gone out of the way to award projects to China on a gov­ern­ment-to­gov­ern­ment ba­sis while In­dian com­pa­nies bag projects through in­ter­na­tional ten­der­ing. Ma­jor projects bagged by China in­clude the Pokhara air­port and the West Seti and Bud­hi­gan­daki hy­dropower projects. Dis­cus­sions are also on be­tween Nepal and China to con­struct a cross-bor­der rail link with Nepal.

All this should make In­dia re­alise not just the com­pe­ti­tion it faces from the Chi­nese dragon in­Nepal but also that it can no longer rely merely on its his­tor­i­cal, cul­tural and peo­ple-to-peo­ple ties to earn good­will . There­fore, In­dia must step on the gas and be­gin de­liv­er­ing quickly on projects fast also walk­ing the tight-rope on the Mad­hesi is­sue.

The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist

A re­la­tion­ship that re­quires se­ri­ous mend­ing THE HINDU

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