Round Table Discussion on India-Nepal Relations
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The Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) organized a Round Table Discussion to discuss India-Nepal relations on 7th November 2019. This everlasting friendship is now also being called a ‘strategic partnership’. This relationship was analysed, considering China factor, wherein India needs to balance out the pressure and leverage to Nepal. While India has been leveraging its neighbours, they have been using China card against them.

The India-Nepal relationship is very strong at the government level, whereas in the case of Nepal, people to people connect is equally important. Connectivity is another important angle to analyse the relationship these two countries share. Things have improved after BIMSTEC became instrumental in providing new avenues to build sub-regional relationships. With these remarks, Dr. Arvind Gupta initiated the discussion on the related aspects of India-Nepal relation.

Ambassador Jayant affirmed the argument on the China factor. Though India has certain leverage over China, that leverage has not been exploited well. On the other hand, Chinese influence has been growing in Nepal with an increase in financial aid and investments. Nepal is heavily dependent on India, although in FDI the Chinese figure is three times the Indian figure. Moreover, they have also started giving financial aid to the Madhesi party. Certain reports suggest that China is now paying attention even to domestic politics, which was absent earlier.

Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma raised the argument that there is a dichotomy of Indian approach on dealing with Nepal. One approach deals with Nepal, like the centre deals with its states. The second approach deals with Nepal as a separate state. The problem here is with the second approach, which might hamper the relationship further. China has become pervasive in Nepal in its government and bureaucracy as well. To deal with Nepal, India needs to see it vis-à-vis China. If India works with Nepal, regardless of what they are doing with China, it might continue to give us greater strength.

Ambassador Satish Chandra pointed out towards the unmatched advantages that India has over Nepal vis-à-vis China. To maintain that advantageous position, India should treat Nepal like any other neighbour and listen to their concerns. India needs to work it out in a manner which is beneficial to both – India and Nepal. Nepal’s friendship with China, should not be India’s concern. India has a certain rate of delivery, which is slow. India should ensure that the delivery of projects is people friendly and reasonable.

Professor Sangeeta Thapliyal argued that Chinese influence is increasing. Also, Nepal is accepting it more. Post-blockade, public opinion in Nepal has also favoured China over India. Hinduism of the hills is quite different from Hinduism practised in the plains of Nepal. India needs to have a nuanced understanding of it. At the same time, there are certain commonalities with Hinduism as well. Nepali should be incentivised when he/she visits India for religious tourism. Facilities, such as bus services, lower ticket prices etc should be offered. Hence, rather than capitalising on tourism, India should use it as a barter for their strategic interests. There is a need for positive engagement.

Professor Muni extensively discussed the relations further and suggested to not mix up India’s Neighbour policy with India’s China policy. The two need to be separated. China policy needs to be revisited and revamped. Any the change in China's policy will affect all the neighbours. The real change in the neighbourhood vis a vis China is that earlier China was brought in by the neighbours against us to balance. Now the Chinese are coming on their own. Not enough attention has been paid to strengths and vulnerabilities.

There are 4-5 very strong drivers of China's South Asia policy and that is affecting the neighbours. Today, if India wins over the Nepal government completely, still the Chinese pressure would continue. India won over Sri Lanka government completely at one stage of time, the Chinese pressure continued and broke its approach.

On the issue of Nepal, ‘delivery deficit’ is another important issue. Prime Minister Modi has done its best to bridge this gap, but he has not succeeded. The oil pipeline, which India is flagging out as a great achievement is a very tiny project. Unless India rectifies these systemic problems, not only our Nepal policy will be affected, rather the whole foreign policy would be affected. Second, India must take a very clear cognizance of Nepali nationalism which is an essential factor in people-to-people contact. Coercive diplomacy is bound to fail in the case of India and Nepal relations. Prof Muni argued the same while countering the then Foreign Secretary Jaishankar statement which said, “we will not only have reciprocity, we will assert our point”.

Moreover, the Chinese are trying to undercut the traditional relationship between India and Nepal. Mandarin is being taught in the schools, three classes of Mandarin are being arranged and then the payment of the teachers for teaching Mandarin is being given directly by the Chinese embassy. So, these schools are kind of obliged to the Chinese Embassy.

To sum, India has a genuine upfront open policy of a friendly approach towards Nepal, which must be maintained. China is a major issue as far as our interests are concerned. China earlier used to fund a few projects, has now gone through a different route is funding a large number of businesses as well. The Japanese market has also been captured by the Chinese. Some projects also being done but the private sector. Further, the investment has been increasing in Nepal.

China is far stronger and has been practising neo-colonialism throughout the small countries of Asia and Africa. China likes to have an unequal relationship with not just these small states but India as well. India should invest more on the soft power diplomacy with Nepal and cultivate people in academia, arts, media and opinion leaders and establish cultural links. The issues related to rivers needs to be solved and the increasing presence of NGOs in Nepal should also be looked into by India.

Event Date 
November 7, 2019

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