Greek Tragedy

Murari Sharma

Although the unofficial Indian economic blockade of the Nepal-India border to register its displeasure with the recently promulgated constitution of Nepal seems to have been officially lifted yesterday, ominous black clouds are still lurking on the horizon of the murky sky. The precursors of further trouble have been witnessed already — today.

India did not let fuel carrying trucks to pass the common border.

India was unhappy with the way the statute was progressing. Therefore, it had invited Sher Bahadur Deuba and Prachand to New Delhi to shape the course to its liking. Just before the statute was adopted by the Constituent Assembly,  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his special envoy, who demanded that the statute not be promulgated without bringing the Madheshi regional parties (MRPs) on board.

The main three parties (MTPs) delayed the process for two days and called on MRPs for dialogue. But MRPs rejected the call. So, MTPs went ahead with the statute’s promulgation on 20 September. While the rest of the world welcomed the constitution, India only “noted” it, unofficially presented its seven-point demands, and hinted that there would be problems if MRPs’ demands were not accommodated.

MRPs launched protests in the plains and put  several preconditions forward for dialogue. And New Delhi ordered its security and custom officials to effectively stem the flow of goods into Nepal, though it denied that there was no blockade.

Consequently, trucks carrying food, medicine, construction materials and petroleum products have been queued up on the Indian side. The Indian Oil Corporation, which is obliged by an agreement to supply petroleum products, refused to do so citing orders from above.

New Delhi sought to dodge the onus of the embargo. It said the blockade was done by MRPs. Indeed, MRP workers have tried to picket the border, and they failed to do so on the Nepal side, they have started doing it from the Indian side. But the claim that MRPs have been doing the picketing fell apart when the largest of MRPs disputed that claim.

As dialogue between MTPs and MRPs started the other day, India officially lifted the unofficial blockade. The lifting of sanctions coincided with the opening of the two road links to China that were blocked by the earthquakes of April and May this year, with China’s pledge to help Nepal overcome its shortages, and with the increasing criticism in India of the Modi government for the failure of its Nepal policy.

It is a Greek tragedy of sorts. Modi had struck the right chord in his first visit to Kathmandu and won accolades from most sections of the Nepali people through his friendly speech at the Constituent Assembly and pledge to respect Nepal’s sovereignty and economic development.

Again in the wake of the major earthquakes in April and May this year, Modi  had done the same with his warm sympathy, active support for rescue of the quake victims and generous commitment to rebuilding Nepal. The Nepali people were enamored with him and India by this as well.

The blockade shattered that love and good will. It has hurt both sides. The Nepali people have suffered the shortage of basic products. India has lost its newly earned prestige and good will in Nepal. Anti-India sentiment has spawned north of its border, many cities and towns witnessing the burning of Modi’s effigy and chanting of anti-Indian slogans.

MTPs, MRPs and India share the blame for the present ugly situation. MTPs did not handle the situation dexterously before the statute was promulgated. They could have waited for a week to reach an understanding with MRPs and thus kept New Delhi in good humor.

MRPs dragged India into Nepal’s constitution writing process and exposed as if New Delhi were the true friend of Madheshis and fair weather friends of Nepalis.

India not only imposed the unofficial blockade but also proved that some Nepalis are closer to its heart than others. It could have achieved its objective without exposing itself, because it has been the kingmaker in Nepal since 1950, more so after the abolition of monarchy.

I understand foreign relations are not a charitable exercise, though sometimes they are encapsulated as such. But I am not sure whether India has taken all pros and cons before embarking on the current course regarding Nepal.

For one thing, today’s Nepal is not the Nepal of 1989-90, when India’s economic embargo had pulled down the panchayat system. At that time, Nepal was not on course to becoming a federal republic. China was not as strong or as interested in Nepal as it is today. And there was only one precarious road link between Nepal and China.

Now the situation is much different. China is stronger and more eager to project its power internationally. It has serious concerns about federalism in Nepal in general and strong Madheshi provinces in the southern plains in particular. And there are two road links between Nepal and Tibet, fed by the railway line to Tibet.

MTPs and MRPs have yet a long way to go find common ground. Therefore, as a friend of India, I would say that New Delhi should try to retain its influence in Nepal in a way that does not push its northern neighbor to the Chinese embrace. I know China cannot substitute India. But nations sometimes can bear unspeakable suffering to maintain their ego and existence.

As a Nepali citizen I have this advice for Nepali leaders. Maintain excellent friendly and cooperative relations with India, China and the rest of the world. Do not pit one friend against another. Do not close the door of trade to India, China, and other countries.

That is diversification, which will help Nepal secure its prosperity and protect its independence.

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