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With Nepal, India needs to act like a brother, not big brother

With Nepal, India needs to act like a brother, not big brother

It was a bolt from the blue when Nepal alleged that India has encroached upon its territory on the border with Uttarakhand. But worse was to come when Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli said, the “Indian virus looks more lethal than Chinese and Italian now. More are getting infected.”

It is a clear sign that not all is well between India and Nepal. But how did a relationship with a friendly country slide down so fast? Late last year, our relations with the world had nosedived, but were restored through urgent medical diplomacy. With Nepal too we need a dose of tactful, persuasive diplomacy.

To begin with, <a href="https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/05/29/on-boundary-row-india-says-it-s-open-to-engage-with-nepal-on-the-basis-of-mutual-sensitivity-and-respect"><strong>the onus is on India to resolve</strong> </a>border irritants with Nepal. This begins by not making provocative statements, for diplomacy is an art and cannot be reactionary. Nepal has been asking India to discuss Lipulekh since late last year. Owing to the famed Indian bureaucracy, we have been sitting on that bilateral request for so long that it has now caught global attention.

There are many positive points with Nepal. One is that we have been able to amicably resolve close to 95 per cent of our border disputes through talks. Now there are just two unresolved border issues—Lipulekh in Uttarakhand and Susta in the West Champaran district of Bihar. If the two neighbors sit down for talks, these too can be resolved in some time.

<img class="alignnone size-medium wp-image-2608" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SharmaOli-300×134.jpg" alt="" />

A learning for India is that it needs to continually re-look and invest in its relationships, particularly with countries that matter—Nepal is one such country. It matters not just because it shares a 5,000-year-old rich cultural and religious history with India, but also because the people-to-people contact between the countries cannot be underestimated. <a href="https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/president-confers-honorary-rank-of-general-of-indian-army-on-nepal-army-chief/articleshow/67499968.cms?from=mdr"><strong>The Army Chief of Nepal</strong> </a>enjoys the honorary rank of General of the Indian Army and vice-versa. This mutual understanding of respect and reciprocity should be maintained with our northern neighbor. Nepal also matters because we share a nearly 1,800 km long open border.

For too long, Indian diplomacy has cited traditional ties with Nepal and left it there. In a changing world climate, these traditional relations need oiling from time to time. China has already surrounded India with its might—from the west through a pliable Pakistan and the south through Maldives and Sri Lanka. The world knows that Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives have fallen into China's ruthless debt diplomacy and right under India's nose.

Nepal too is staring at a similar fate. In 2019-2020, <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-11/07/c_138535703.htm"><strong>over 90 per cent of Nepal's foreign direct</strong> </a>investment pledges have come from China ($88 million) while India stands at number three ($1.76 million). How did this happen when India-Nepal ties were all about being 'traditional allies'? Either we were sleeping, and a long nap it was, or we pushed Nepal too far.

Often, India has been accused of being callous towards its smaller northern neighbor. The Modi government in 2015 repeated the Rajiv Gandhi government’s mistake of 1989—closing the borders of a friendly, landlocked country. This is not just poor diplomacy but also an effective instrument to turn the common Nepali against big brother India. The 2015 economic blockade led to Nepal measuring other options for its imports—China got a foothold and is now comfortable in Nepal.

For some years now, Kathmandu has been getting distant from New Delhi and moving closer to Beijing. Today, China’s influence is considerable in the social, cultural, and economic affairs of the Himalayan republic.

Nepal remains critical for India's security. Pakistan has been instigating Nepal against India for long. It has made the Himalayan nation a comfortable launch-pad for many an anti-India activity—spying, pushing fake currency, sending terrorists and smuggling arms, all <a href="https://www.efsas.org/publications/study-papers/misuse-of-nepal%E2%80%99s-territory-by-pakistan%E2%80%99s-intelligence-agencies-to-foment-terrorism/"><strong>through its embassy in Kathmandu</strong></a>.

India has allowed the Lipulekh imbroglio to fester for many years. We should give credit to Nepal for its patience and the fact that it has been persistent with New Delhi. The impasse should be taken seriously and efforts made to iron out Nepal’s concerns. On its part, Nepal has to understand that India has never laid claims to any part or territory of the Himalayan country. Also, India has been able to resolve all its land disputes with Bangladesh including exchanging contentious enclaves. So it can be with Nepal.

Kathmandu should also realize that while India’s diplomats may be maladroit, its intentions are noble. In sharp contrast, China is a bully no neighbor likes and even many a distant country dislikes.

So, what is the way forward for the two countries? A good start to re-boot Indo-Nepal relations can be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s <a href="https://www.livemint.com/news/india/with-neighbourhood-first-policy-india-gives-priority-to-south-asia-president-kovind-1561053263191.html"><strong>‘neighborhood first’ policy</strong></a>. It can be an excellent stepping stone for building a friendlier, cohesive, integrated neighborhood, including with Nepal. Let the Ministry of External Affairs under seasoned diplomat, S. Jaishankar, look at Nepal afresh—address its immediate concerns, resolve the two boundary issues, invest more in the tiny nation, increase bilateral aid, improve popular sentiment and build stronger people-to-people contacts that further cement social and cultural relations..