BANGKOK - If distance gives perspective, then there is no better place to reflect over Nepal-India relations than while flying over this vast subcontinent and watching the Himalaya recede over the northern horizon. The necessity of rethinking the bases came out of a chance meeting with an Indian diplomat at Bangkok transit.
South Asia's hub these days is Bangkok. Even Prime Minister Deuba passes through Don Muang on his way to and from Europe. There are no flights between Kathmandu to Colombo, or New Delhi to Islamabad, but one can go between these places by flying all the way to Bangkok. So it isn't unusual to bump into South Asians in the cavernous shopping mall that is the departure concourse of Bangkok International Airport.
The dip in question was in a relaxed mood and began by praising the realistic geo-politics of Nepali Maoists. Never since Rana rule, he said, has a political force in Kathmandu been as friendly towards the Delhi darbar as the Maoists. He may have been over-playing it for effect, but it is a fact that Maoists hiding in India are not unduly worried about the Interpol Red Corner notice. Once in a while, some low level Maoists are apprehended by the Uttar Pradesh Police and handed over to Nepal, but the big fish continue to swim back and forth across the border.
The Indian diplomat-let's call him "ID"-urged me to think like an Indian for a moment and ask why India must remain friendlier to Nepal than is absolutely necessary. According to ID, Nepal has ceased to be the buffer that once cushioned the clash of geo-political plates between India and China. Beijing is wary about Tibetan activity in Nepal, and there is no reason why India should depend anymore on Nepal to protect its strategic interests in the Himalaya. ID was warming up to his line of thinking, and added meaningfully: "In fact, Nepal magnifies problems for India."
It is clear that the new breed of South Block strategists see Nepal as a pesky pebble in the rice bowl. There is a message in there for us in Nepal. We can't count anymore on the rhetoric of "age old ties of amity and friendship" anymore. Our relationship has to be based on something more tangible. If we want favours, we must first know what they really want.
Back in the "buffer" days, Nepal's independence saved the Indian army the cost of patrolling the high, hostile frontier with China. With Indo-Chinese detente this buffer is less important. Meanwhile, our southern border now has to be guarded by an Indian border patrol that is an army by another name. So the budgetary advantage of having Nepal as buffer has vanished.
Nepal has friendly relations with Pakistan. It can't cut off ties simply because New Delhi doesn't like it. An independent Nepal cannot be an extension of Indian foreign policy even if China recognises the area south of the Himalaya as Delhi's sphere of influence.
We therefore have to decide what kind of relationship we want with India. We can follow the belligerency model often adopted by Bangladesh and brace ourselves for the consequences. Or we can go to the other extreme, and do the Thimpu model to win material advantages by sacrificing certain emotional ones. One can't have it both ways: Shital Niwas cannot treat South Block like a distant neighbour and then expect geopolitical advantages that are never unconditional. Then there is the option of maintaining a balance: the Sri Lankan way.
When Sikkimese Chief Minister Pawan Chamling told this paper last year that it was not Sikkim that merged into India but the other way round, we found it a cute remark. But it is a fact that the Sikkimese have benefited immensely from Indian largesse. If Nepal doesn't adopt realistic policies towards India, then there are chances of an action replay of the Kazi-Chogyal showdown here. The Maoists will be only too happy to dance to that tune.
The days of dictatorial vanity couched in the terminology of nationalism and patriotism are long over. The disadvantaged of Nepal are no longer ready to endure nationalism on an empty stomach. Nepalis toiling in the Gulf and Malaysia now know that there is no particular advantage attached to a passport of one of the poorest countries of the world that is now also strife-torn. When they return, as they one day will, they will want a say in how Nepal is run. And the governing elite will then no longer be able to fool them with the supposed advantages of never having been a colony.
Like every other emotional Nepali, I told ID that an independent Nepal is a moral issue, not a balance sheet. As we got up to board our respective flights, I had to add that an independent and prosperous Nepal is still in India's best interest.
It is clear, however, that we continue to ignore the hard realities of geopolitics in this region at our own peril. The economic reasons are compelling enough, but now it\'s clear that we need more than show-case support from India to control the Maoist insurgency.
Prime Minister Deuba can re-impose the state of emergency in the country by undermining the spirit of the constitution, but he cannot stop them from roaming free over Indian territory.
It's a difficult decision, but one we will have to take sooner or later. A later decision may be too late if the Maoists are indeed as friendly to their handlers as ID claimed they are.