Calcutta High Court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay on Sunday said he will resign from his post on 5 March.
Somewhere there is a need for a gentler touch of diplomatic outreach and treatment of neighbours as equals. The bravado and assertion that galvanises internal politics in India needs to be tempered with dignity and without suggestions of interest in external politics, as small flare-ups like the recent Nepal incident are telling of consequences that India could face, going forward
Religious, cultural, linguistic and even marital ties aside, the Indo-Nepal relationship was given to occasional crests and troughs as political sideshows owing to its inseparability of geography and history. The power structure that sought to cement the bilateral ties i.e. the Rana rulers, with the signing of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, was soon ousted and diminished in local imagination.
The handed down legacy of the bilateral treaty by the various monarchial (Shah rulers) or political forces of various hues had an uncommitted equation, attached to the treaty. The treaty’s signed terms of free movement and the resultant migration of many Indians to Nepal’s Terai area became a source of constant concern. Growing numbers of the Indian diaspora, the commercial stakes of Indian entities and the on-ground presence of the Indian Military Mission in Nepal became a political eyesore and morphed into issues of sovereign pride. Amidst this, China became the default bunny to pull out of the hat, whenever Kathmandu sought to get back at Delhi.
Ironically, the Shah regime fronted the occasional anti-India dissonance, whereas the principal democratic opposition in the form of the Nepal Congress were more amenable towards India. The Shahs were constantly irritated with the shelter and support afforded by India to the democratic forces in the opposition, and a consequential formula of invoking China on the rebound, emerged. While China could never replace India in the socio-economic-commercial sense, the drift towards China became an auto-instinct move, irrespective of the dispensation in power, in Kathmandu. Frequent fissures included ostensible ‘economic blockade’ into landlocked Nepal by India, reciprocal decoupling of currency and punitive measures, etc.
A sense of India’s ability (and indifference to Nepali pain) of flexing its economic leverage with blockades gained popular currency and perceptions of bullying a smaller nation, albeit one with the immense pride of never having been occupied by any colonist/invader, irked its sovereign pride. With this landscape, another parallel movement of Maoists/ Communists who took on the royalists to dethrone the Shah rule, had its own ideological mooring that made it naturally more conducive to Beijing than to Delhi.
In the quest to look and sound more ideologically committed, the disparate leftist forces (who started sparring amongst themselves after deposing the Shah regime) assumed positions of open stridency with Delhi to legitimise their own local appeal. Delhi didn’t help matters by taking up the matter of Madheshi (Indian origin settlers) during the formation of the new constitution and certainly not with further accusations of yet another blockade. China’s timely opening of its purse strings and suggestions of economic support bolstered the anti-India sentiment. 2015 was arguably the lowest point in Indo-Nepal relations and Pradeep Gyawali, Secretary of CPN(UML) stated bluntly, “We want to take forward the relationship with India based on equality and the same applies to China…We will not accept the big brother attitude”.
He added, “If India wants to play a role in world politics, it will have to first form cordial relationships with neighbouring countries. Otherwise, its role will be questioned and challenged…. We expect India to respect our sovereignty, right of the Nepalese people to take care of their own problems”. Gyawali’s statement was important because he represented the biggest faction of the leftist forces i.e., KPS Oli’s CPN (UML) and would later go on to become Nepal’s Foreign Minister (2018-21). The Prime Minister of Nepal then was Oli himself, and he had started carving out a sharp space for himself within the left forces by taking a decidedly pro-China (anti-India, by default) posture to differentiate himself from his rival, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda of CPM (Maoist Centre). Importantly, the Foreign Secretary of India in those days is the current Foreign
Minister of India, S Jaishankar. All players from that time are again at the centerstage of the latest Indo-Nepali dissonance, albeit this time with Prachanda as the Nepal Prime Minister and with KPS Oli breathing down his neck, as the opposition leader. The pro-oranti India dimension has assumed institutionalised proportions in Nepali politics, akin to the similar ‘divide’ in Maldivian politics (where too, China is the go-to option on the rebound). The latest trigger was Prachanda’s gaffe where he seemed to suggest that an Indian businessman, Pritam Singh, had once made efforts by confabulating with Delhi and Kathmandu to make Prachanda the Prime Minister!
The comment pressed a raw nerve as it seemed to suggest the role of ‘Delhi’ in making governments and Prime Ministers in Nepal, and the opposition led by Oli had a field day expressing outrage and sovereign compromise. It took a public apology and clarification from Prachanda to explain the context of his illworded comment for normalcy to be restored.
However, what the incident exemplified is the centrality (in a negative sense) of India in the political discourse amongst the warring factions. While Pakistan and China are old hats of unneighborly relations (with downgraded diplomatic relations with Islamabad since 2019), it is this disconcerting sentiment in Nepal, Maldives and Bangladesh (along with the recent comment of Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering incredously calling China a, ‘equal stakeholder’) that provokes concern. Whereas politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka got distracted with their own self-created compulsions (coup and financial meltdown, respectively), but both countries had actively committed to China’s Belt and Road Initiate (BRI) and ushered in pro-Chinese dynamics. While the neighbouring countries would be familiar with the dangers of accepting Chinese largesse or ‘debt-traps’, while trying to diminish the Indian footprint, it has not stopped them from dangling the Chinese card, knowing India’s soft spot on the same.
Importantly, each of these countries has expressed issues of ‘tone and tenor’ besides some irritants (e.g., lack of discussions on Agniveer scheme given the Nepali stakes or the unconverted Indian currency notes post-demonetisation still with the Central bank of Nepal) that Delhi has ostensibly ignored. Often the domestic politics and passions of Indian politics spill over into the consciousness of neighbouring countries like Bangladesh which ends up inadvertently strengthening the cause of their anti-India opposition parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. Somewhere there is a need for a gentler touch of diplomatic outreach and treatment as equals (as perceived to be denied by many across borders).
The bravado and assertion that galvanises internal politics in India needs to be tempered with dignity and without suggestions of interest in external politics, as small flare-ups like the recent Nepal incident are telling of consequences that India could face, going forward.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)