Dr. SD Muni is Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Former Indian Diplomat. He is a member of the Executive Council of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
He has taught, conducted, and supervised research at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the National University of Singapore, Banaras Hindu University, and the University of Rajasthan.
He served as India’s Special Envoy to South-East Asian countries on UNSC Reforms and represented India’s Minister of External Affairs at the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Paris Peace Conference, held in Phnom Penh, Kampuchea.
He was also India’s Ambassador to Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He was invited to address the UN Special Committee on the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace at Sochi, then as part of the Soviet Union, in 1985.
Prof. Muni was nominated to the first-ever constituted National Security Advisory Board of India and was the founding executive member of the Regional Centre of Strategic Studies, Colombo. In 2005, he was bestowed with ‘Sri Lanka Ratna’, Sri Lanka’s highest national honor for a foreign national.
Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Strategic Affairs Editor at Khabarhub, spoke to Prof. SD Muni on various aspects of Nepal-India relations.
What does the new Nepali Congress government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba mean for India? How does India plan to engage with the new government?
New Delhi would always engage positively with any government in Kathmandu. But there is not much enthusiasm for a government led by PM Deuba.
Though Nepali Congress and New Delhi relationship has always been positive, in recent years, they have found that PM Deuba was more resilient in taking any position, particularly on border issues.
India was relying on PM Deuba, not Prime Minister at that time, to support them but he sided with PM Oli. And even otherwise, he has been now the leader of the Nepali Congress for a very long time and Nepali Congress needs some kind of change.
Thus, there has not been any great enthusiasm for the Deuba government. Also, because there is always an undercurrent of what you call disbelief or discomfort with the Maoists led by Prachanda, and they are also part of the government.
Therefore, there are reasons why New Delhi is not very enthusiastic. But having said that I must make it very clear and should not be misunderstood that no government in New Delhi would afford to be unnecessarily hostile and unfriendly to any government which is there in Kathmandu.
So, I think there would be a normal engagement between the New Delhi and Deuba government without any great enthusiasm and any great happiness.
There is a perception in Nepal that towards the end of his tenure, KP Sharma Oli had taken India into confidence to remain in power. Had Oli resolved his differences after the high-level visits from India to Kathmandu in 2020?
This is true, in the last couple of months the relationship between Oli and New Delhi had improved significantly, particularly since last year when a high-level visit took place to Kathmandu after the border row which created a lot of tensions between India and Nepal relations.
The tensions happened because PM Oli was politically cornered in his own party, and the Chinese, on whom he was relying earlier, was trying to patch up in the party, were also putting some pressure on Oli to compromise with the other factions in the party, particularly, Prachanda faction and the Madhav Kumar Nepal faction.
This was not acceptable to Oli and therefore, for his own internal political survival, since the Chinese support would not be there for him if he did not make any compromises, he switched to a softer posture towards New Delhi.
We have no confusion in India that most of Oli’s anti-Indianism has largely been driven by his desire to survive as a Prime Minister and dominate the Nepal Communist Party and once it happened, but that was not possible and so he softened it.
On the other hand, New Delhi also thought that there is no point in unnecessarily dragging on with the tensions and hostility particularly when China was becoming very assertive on Nepal and on the whole of South Asia.
In addition, there was a major border issue precipitated by Prime Minister Oli, so it was nice to soften on the Nepal side and on the Oli issue.
It also tactically suited India because once Prime Minister Oli became softer to India his credibility as a nationalist leader who can stand up to India got dented, if not completely eroded.
Also, because it sends a message to all Nepalese that anti-Indianism in Nepal is more politically driven and tactical rather than a genuine one and that is what India’s perception actually is.
When India is not against Nepal and Nepalese are not against India, there is no use of this political manipulation of nationalism which hurts Nepal’s as well as India’s interest.
So, there were reasons and probably some messages. There was no policy package made in Foreign Ministry to soften towards Oli.
It was essentially a tactical rapprochement between the two PM offices, the Prime Minister’s Office in Delhi and in Kathmandu, that the relationship between PM Oli and the New Delhi establishment has suddenly softened.
It’s been more than three years since EPG finalized a joint report with recommendations aimed at redefining the Nepal- India bilateral ties. However, the group hasn’t been able to present its report to the prime ministers of both countries. It has created lots of noise in Kathmandu. Where does the contention lie?
I think the Nepali people have raised too many hopes on EPG. People like me never had much hope for EPG for the very simple reason that the governments, when they decide to resolve their issues, they do not need any EPG.
All the issues which were put before the EPG had been under discussion between New Delhi and Kathmandu for a long time.
And if they don’t want to take an unpleasant decision, either way, either Nepal or India, then you set up a committee which will go into for another two years and you buy time out of that.
EPG was actually an exercise of buying time between Nepal and India to address some of the controversial issues. EPG has submitted their report; the problem is not with the EPG as they have done their job.
In the report, there are parts that are not acceptable to Nepal and parts which are not acceptable to New Delhi. Both New Delhi and Nepal have formally not owned the report.
There are some EPG members who have come out, like Ambassador Bhekh Bahadur Thapa. They have come out publicly and said something about the EPG but I have not heard the PM of Nepal assertively saying that we accept the EPG report. So, even Nepal has not accepted the EPG report.
I find a lot of Nepali media writing all the time that India is not accepting the EPG report. Yes, you are right, India has not accepted the EPG report, however, Nepal has also not accepted the EPG report largely because there are parts of the EPG recommendations and conclusions which are not acceptable to Nepal.
There are parts that are not acceptable to India. After the EPG report, I do find certain changes, at least on both sides, that some of the projects like the oil pipeline project, the Hulaki road, the railway connection between Janakpur and Jayanagar, have been expedited. These are some of the pending projects, firstly.
Secondly, so far as the 1950 treaty is concerned, India’s stated position is that we are prepared to sit down and revise. Tell us how to revise. It is for Nepal to say specifically what kind of revisions it wants.
It should be very clear. The treaty has two pillars, one is the security pillar, where India wants Nepal not to do anything which adversely affects India’s security.
Second is the developmental pillar, in which India has assured Nepal that whatever Nepal wants for development, India will do it including the equal treatment of the citizens within India’s economic opportunities.
Now you cannot have one pillar ignore the other and that is what the problem is. Nepal’s problem is largely with the security pillar.
Nepal’s problem is not much with the developmental pillar. They want to retain the development pillar and want to dilute or completely eliminate the security pillar.
That may not be acceptable to India. So, there is no treaty that can be finalized or concluded by only one side dictating the terms of the treaty and that’s where the problem is.
From the Indian point of view, the former Ambassador Ranjit Roy has recently published a book on India-Nepal relations that would be very useful.
In the book, he has clearly underlined, this is in the mutual interest and whatever is acceptable in the mutual interest should be done in revising the treaty.
Take the Bhutan example, the Bhutan treaty was revised without much political fuss and hassle. This can be done in revising the Nepal treaty also if you want to revise it. And if Nepal does not want to revise and abandon the treaty, Nepal should give notice, based on whatever the provision is in the treaty.
Nepal can then abandon and feel free of the treaty and therefore accept all the obligations and consequences which come out of it. So, it is a problem on both sides.
Therefore, I see some of the issues which were put on the table of the EPG are being addressed, whether the EPG has been accepted or not.
But whatever the EPG recommendation might have been on the developmental area and even on the security area are being accepted. Both the governments are to some extent addressing them. Therefore the EPG issue has almost become a no issue.
Some parts of the Indian government have said that the EPG report was made for the Internal consumption of the Indian government.
So, the government will internally consume whatever it wants to consume. Whatever it does not want to consume it would not consume. And I think the same applies to the Nepali side, Nepal would accept whatever it wants to accept and would not accept whatever it does not want to accept.
There was not a single visit by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh during his decade-long tenure while PM Modi has made four official visits to Nepal in four years. Has India prioritized Nepal in recent times?
There was no difference between the UPA and NDA governments, so far as keeping close engagement with Nepal is concerned.
You are right that Manmohan Singh did not visit and many of the Indians were very unhappy. I was very unhappy. I have written in several of my articles that this is not done.
And I hear that after the change in Nepal, Dr. Manmohan Singh was about to visit but the bureaucracy probably suggested we must have some big achievements and then you should visit. It was wrong on his part to not pay visits to neighboring countries, which PM Modi has done.
There is certainly greater dynamism and the pace of engagement is much faster and much wider under PM Modi. There is no doubt about it. But in terms of the quality of engagement, I think there was no change.
All the governments would always want to have a very close, very friendly and very positive relationship with Nepal.
Is there any change in India’s Nepal policy with a change in government in India? What are the continuities and changes in India-Nepal relations since PM Modi came to power?
Well, I think the continuity is to have deep engagement. The change I would say is that PM Modi reacts both positively and negatively.
Positively, in the sense that the areas where there was inactivity on India’s side, PM Modi has filled them up. Like the visits which you just now mention, or picking up the old projects to be taken and pursued in any seriousness which he has started doing.
But on the negative side, I would say, the Modi administration is comparatively more assertive on India’s interest than the previous Indian governments.
When it comes to the previous governments of India if Nepal did not respond they somehow let things sleep by. If you refer to PM Modi’s neighborhood first policy, it is very clearly stated that ‘Neighbourhood First’ means priority to neighbors, but not priority at the cost of India’s vital interest.
Now, therefore, whenever there is a question of India feeling bad about its vital interest being affected, Modi’s India would respond or react more strongly than any other previous governments.
Previous governments, certainly either of Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Dr. Manmohan Singh, would have reacted. So that is the one difference.
Secondly, I find under PM Modi there is a great deal of emphasis on cultural and civilizational ties between the two countries.
Development is at the forefront but I think there is a greater emphasis now. More money has been allocated for developmental projects in Nepal.
Some of the projects which were being delayed earlier are being expedited now. There is a lot of dynamism and a lot of activism that is taking place and there is a lot of cultural emphasis on relationships.
Like PM Modi’s desire to visit Jankapur, PM Modi’s emphasis is on developing Lumbini. Although many Indian PMs have visited Pashupatinath, the manner in which PM Modi visited was to send a very strong message that we value civilizational and cultural bonding, that exists between India and Nepal far more strongly than any other would have done.
So, these are some changes that have taken place. But there is no let-up in India’s security concerns whether it relates to the border, whether it relates to China or whether it relates to the terrorist aspects.
You said that there was no change in the UPA and NDA government. However, there were debacles in Nepal-India relations a couple of times during NDA, for eg. the blockade or the border issues.
I mentioned to you that PM Modi’s government would react strongly. That was what was reflected in the blockade, in the constitutional amendment, and also on the border issue.
I think that it will continue to reflect so far as the proximity of Nepal with China is concerned, which may affect India’s economic and strategic interest.
So, wherever India’s interests are directly affected, Modi’s government has reacted more strongly. So, Blockade may be one of the reasons and was one example of Modi’s foreign policy, and so is the pipeline project, which is another example of Modi’s foreign policy.
Both these things were missing from the previous administration and further underlines that the dynamism of Modi’s foreign policy towards Nepal is very clearly evident, while the assertion of India’s interests in Nepal in Modi’s foreign policy is also very evident.
You mentioned the 69-km cross-border pipeline which was inaugurated between Nepal and India in September 2019. It was completed 15 months ahead of schedule and is the first of this kind in South Asia. What went wrong with previous Indian development projects in Nepal? Why have many Indian development projects long-delayed in Nepal?
I am of the opinion that India’s foreign policy suffers from a major disease. And that disease is ‘delivery deficient’. Many of the promises made by the Government of India are not delivered or are not delivered to the satisfaction of the targeted country.
And that’s not in relation to Nepal alone. The Nepalese must understand very clearly that this is how the Indian system works. India’s bureaucracy, India’s democratic system, India’s old imperial laws in bureaucracy; the divisions between finance and defense, between finance and foreign affairs, between home and foreign affairs.
These divisions of various ministries working at different levels are very difficult to coordinate. The lack of coordination makes many of the projects suffer.
Let me pause for a while and say that in many cases, whenever there have been tensions between India and Nepal relations, the Nepali side has also delayed some of the projects in terms of grant of land, or grant of permissions and all that.
So, it’s all accumulated to delay a certain project. Those delays, as I mention, are why we see these delays of government promise and government practice even at home.
So, this is a real problem that even the Indian system is now aware of. But it cannot suddenly become very efficient. This is where Indian foreign policy really suffers in terms of competing with China. No intent, or not in terms of commitment, but in terms of ‘delivery’.
This is where the problem is, which I agree with you that earlier; even now I would say, the speed of projects would be far slower than what any other country the Japanese or Chinese can deliver.
Time and again there are rumors in Kathmandu that the BJP wants to revive the monarchy or Hindu State in Nepal. According to you, what is the future of the Monarchy or revival of the Hindu state in Nepal?
Well, you are right. I mean, the BJP has not come out with any direct and clear statement whether it wants to revive the monarchy and wants to revive the Hindu state or not.
But my very sincere understanding and feeling are that there are powerful sections within the BJP probably supported by the sections of the RSS, which would want and would be very happy if Nepal became a Hindu state. They would also be very happy if the monarchy is brought back.
There may be sections even in the administration which may find it easier to deal with one man, that is King. Therefore, there are many leaders in democracy who cannot handle and believe it is better to have a King. But, having said that there are two things very clear.
I see no prospects of monarchy’s revival or Hindu state revival so far as Nepal is concerned. Why is it so? Because the monarchy did not deliver to Nepal and Nepali people. Otherwise, it would not have been thrown out.
Monarchy has not been thrown out because of India or anybody else no matter whatever the former King says. So, I don’t see any chances of it.
The political space in Nepal has now been occupied and completely eroded from the monarchy. I know of the demonstrations and show-offs which were done in Kathmandu by the pro-royalist people in favor of the monarchy, in favor of the Hindu state.
But I don’t see much prospect of revival at all. Secondly, it is not in India’s interest to revive the monarchy. Because the Indian administration is worried about the growing Chinese influence and growing Pakistani influence.
They were all brought in during the King’s time. The King has defined India much more than any other leader has defined India or did not care about India.
So, I don’t see any rational reason or rational logic for India to change its policy in these two respects. Nepal has never been a Hindu state except for King Mahendra’s time when he started referring to Hindu states.
Before 1962, Nepal was a Hindu country, it’s a Hindu society. We respect that. We are a large majority of Hindus. But turning a state into a religious state is no good for minorities and people there.
And it has been proved. Therefore, even before 1962’s constitution changes, which King Mahendra brought about, Nepal was not officially a Hindu state. So, there is absolutely no reason to say, since we are Hindu, we should be a Hindu state.
I don’t see it is in India’s interest at all. Though as I said, there are several sections in India, there are certainly sections in BJP and RSS and maybe some pockets of administration because they always go by whatever the ruling party’s mood is who may want some change in Nepal. But the state in India as such, I don’t think would ever go in favor of this decision.
There is increasing tension between India and China since the Dokhlam incident. How is it going to impact Nepal-India Relations?
Well, it would not impact Nepal in any big way. The Chinese economic competition and Chinese push into South Asia are much bigger than the push into Nepal.
So, if India has to deal with China, it has to be dealt with both at the regional level, at the Asian level, and at the International level.
Nepal is a very small area in terms of worrying about China. But Nepal is a very vital area in terms of worrying from China because of security, open-border, and cultural links.
Therefore, India would prefer not to see growing Chinese influence in Nepal. India, similarly on the economic front, cannot compete with the money which the Chinese can flow in. But India’s intent in terms of developing Nepal is good. Its way of doing things needs to be improved.
To compete with the Chinese, India would always insist that any government in Nepal should avoid doing things that hurt India’s interests and favors the Chinese interests.
Otherwise, the India-China relationship is much bigger. So far as trade is concerned, I think India has a much bigger trade with China than Nepal has.
China would want to have trade with India. It might even use Nepal as a corridor for trade with India. But, all these reasons are very clear that economically India and China would have to remain engaged.
Strategically, if they challenge each other as the Chinese are challenging, then it will create all kinds of tensions not only in relations with Nepal but also in relation with other countries.
There are problems in Sri Lanka. There may be problems in Bhutan if Bhutan tomorrow establishes diplomatic relations and the Chinese influence starts growing.
There are problems in Myanmar and Maldives. There are problems even in Bangladesh to some extent. Therefore, China is a major concern of India’s diplomacy and foreign policy in South Asia as a whole. Not only Nepal.
But Nepal is special in the sense that our ties with Nepal are very close and very widely spread and deep.
Whether it is a question of the economic relationship, developmental relationship, it is a question of civilizational and cultural relationship, political relationship, security relationship and what not.