[Speech delivered at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi]
1. I am not here to talk about the Special relationship India and Nepal share, about our age old ties, about the intensity of our cross border interactions, and about our deep friendship. We are all familiar with that story of intimacy. I would like to use this opportunity instead to talk about the structural issues that confront our relationship, the persistent and recurring crises that we see in bilateral ties, and offer some thoughts on how to address it.
2. We have a problem. And that problem is the trust deficit that exists between the Indian establishment and the Nepali political sphere - at different points, different actors within this political sphere may be more close to the Indian government while others may be more distant, and this may keep changing. But it would be safe to say that an overarching sentiment between the two sides is of cordiality on the surface, opportunistic or tactical use of each other but also deep grievances and resentment against each other.
3. Why is this happening? What is the core problem? In my understanding, the problem arises from the fact that many Nepalis strongly feel that India is still not reconciled to Nepal's sovereign status and is not interested in seeing Nepal prosper, while many Indians feel that Nepal cannot be trusted to maintain a friendly orientation which does not hurt its strategic interests. It is this contradiction that has to be resolved if we are to move ahead.
4. It is in this context that I would first like to offer some reflections on what Nepal needs to set right, internally and externally, and then look at what India needs to do.
5. First Nepal. The immediate issue in Nepal is completing our political transition; ensuring that our constitution - which remains contested - is amended in a way that accommodates Madhesis, Tharus and Janjatis and thus is owned by all groups in the country; and then implementing the constitution through elections. Unfortunately, we have seen the resurgence of ultra nationalism in Nepal - which seeks to exclude Madhesis from the national mainstream internally and blames India externally. This unhealthy nationalism now has wide resonance in Nepal's hills, among the KhasArya segment of our population. This is blocking the path to progressive constitutional amendment. Any attempt to push through the constitution by keeping Tarai forces out will be dangerous. For Nepal to progress, it has to have a social contract between its 3 core clusters - AryaKhas, Madhesis and Janjatis. This can only happen through inclusion in state organs. And only a broad political alliance can help Nepal achieve that goal. Naya Shakti, the force I represent, belongs to this pole in Nepali politics - a pole that speaks for the whole nation rather than the dominant castes, that believes in a coalition of all ethnicities and castes.
6. At the same time, India too needs to reflect and look ahead. It has historically played a role in Nepal's internal politics. But India's position has often been inconsistent, and its own priorities, its messaging has not been clear. Look at the issue of the constitution. For the past year and a half, India has emphasised the issue of an inclusive constitution. But if this was a priority for India, why did it not help pro inclusion forces in the first Constituent Assembly? At that point, pro inclusion forces were stronger, Maoists and Madhesis were in fact allies, I was Prime Minister and we felt that India was not very enthusiastic about seeing a constitution promulgated under the Maoists. When such forces became weak, a certain kind of constitution was pushed by regressive forces. Even then, for a long time, India did not send out a clear message. It was when the constitution was being promulgated that the Indian establishment made clear that they thought an inclusive constitution was essential. By then, counter revolutionary forces had become dominant. I am getting into the specifics only to highlight that on the big policy issues, India's line has often been behind the curve, and in the process it has missed the bus. Instead, it has ended up getting involved in petty issues like appointments of government personnel, which don't necessarily add to the Government of India's leverage. Nepal needs to get its politics right, India needs to get its policy, priorities and approach right.
7. But while this is about the past, we need to look ahead. My prescription for Nepal is this. Once we achieve a degree of internal political stability through constitutional reform, Nepal also needs to have a clear strategic vision. We may be sandwiched between two Asian giants, but our dependence and our historical links are to the south. The Nepali polity has to recognise this. And based on this recognition, there has to be a clear, explicit
and if necessary, public commitment that the strategic redlines of the southern power - as long as it does not hurt the interests of Nepali people - will be respected. Nepal will respect India's interests on the strategic front.
8. On India's side, what is needed is a clear commitment, in return, that it will respect Nepal’s sovereignty and enable Nepal's development transformation. Our priority is now economic growth, infrastructure and prosperity. We cannot achieve this without India's active support. It is a shame on all of us who have led Nepal, that millions of Nepalis have to go out to work. India must recognise there is now a new generation in Nepal, this generation is aspirational, this generation is impatient, it does not have the old links with India that my generation or the ones before me had, and what it seeks is visible development. India needs to deliver on this, and win over Nepal's hearts and minds.
To conclude, here is what I would reiterate. Let us recognise there is a problem. Let us admit there is trust deficit, that it comes from our perceptions of your desire to control Nepal and your perceptions of Nepal's unreliability on security and strategic issues. Let us also acknowledge that Nepal is making a mistake by pushing through exclusionary politics in a diverse society and India has made mistakes in the way it has approached Nepali politics. And let us arrive at a new deal - a deal where an inclusive Nepal respects Indian strategic concerns and an enlightened India helps Nepal transform and prosper.
- Baburam Bhattarai