Nepali Times
State Of The State
So close and yet so distant


NEW DELHI -It's business as usual again in the Indian capital. Auto-rickshaw drivers (when not on strike) have begun to zigzag through the traffic and continue to overcharge passengers at the end of hair-raising journeys.

Another sign of the return to normalcy is the resumption of construction work all over the town. Work on the Metro seems to be in full swing, there is a flyover frenzy not seen since Rajiv the Gandhi. Roads are being widened to accommodate the Santros and Zens and Matizes that symbolise an urban middle class consumer revolution. Delhi is changing its face so fast a Garhwali cabbie claimed proudly: "They are turning our city into another Paris." The demolition men of the municipal corporation are going after unauthorised construction with a seriousness that has not been seen since the slum-clearing campaign of the Indian emergency.

At the India International Centre, the intellectual flavour of the season is \'Post-9/11'. Hotshots of the Indian intelligentsia are basking in the glory of being closer to America after the bombings in New York, Washington and the Afghan campaign. Senior diplomats of South Block justify denying Pakistan International Airlines the right to fly over Indian airspace on the specious grounds that anything against Pakistan is justified after the suicide attack on Indian Parliament. The underlying assumption is that in the post 9/11 world, anything goes as long as you say you are fighting terrorism.

A direct effect of the cancellation of PIA overflight is that the South Asians talkfests have to make do without even a token participant from Pakistan. In the absence of balancing academics from Islamabad, Indian pundits have a free run at all IIC proceedings. Increasingly, New Delhi's seminar circuit has come to be dominated by obstinate ex-diplomats, telegenic ex-generals and other septuagenerian extras who have made a name for themselves by being regular talking heads on satellite TV. They may have only a knee-jerk stance on matters geopolitical, but they do have an abundance of practiced sound bites that go well with their faded tweeds and signature moustaches.

On matters relating to Nepal, the Narayanhiti massacre continues to be the most common conversation opener, but the fate of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government inevitably crops up. "How long do you think Deuba will last?" asked IK Gujral, a little anxious about reports in the media that the toppling game in the Nepali Congress had started all over again. Surprisingly, it is being taken for granted by Nepal-watchers here that the Nepali parliament will endorse an extension of the state of emergency. Very few appear to be overly worried about the fire of the Maoist insurgency, but even a former ambassador felt compelled to ask, "What is Koirala up to?"

The media close to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is as hostile as ever. Among the Hindutva fanatics, the anger against Nepal is stronger because they somehow feel that Nepal, despite being the "only Hindu kingdom in the world", has let them down by not joining in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's chorus of Hinduism being in mortal danger. The Hindustan Times carried a story datelined New Delhi where it called Jamim Shah a Pakistani national and described Hotel Karnali as the operational headquarters of ISI and reported the presence in Kathmandu of the underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim. With so many people waving that fiction at my face, I found it hard to explain that Jamim Shah is as much Nepali as I am, and that there is no Hotel Karnali anymore.

In contrast, intellectuals who aren't so close to power are refreshingly reflective. A professor who also happens to be a former ambassador admitted to me, "We must ask ourselves, what is it that makes two of the closest countries in the world such distant neighbours? Should we let few square kilometres of barren land spoil our age-old relationship? Why can't we simply withdraw from Kalapani as a gesture of goodwill? Why can't you check your rapacious industrialists who make a mockery of trade treaties for their personal benefit?" Indeed, why not? Perhaps there is some truth in the belief of a Sri Lankan journalist who said, "While in office, Indian diplomats do all that they can to worsen mutual relations. But as soon as they retire, they want to make amends and help improve ties. Unfortunately, the influence of a serving diplomat is always much more."

But laying the blame at the door of South Block-guarded, incidentally, by a fellow Nepali-is not the way to build bridges of friendship between neighbouring countries. We must do some soul-searching of our own. We must be ready to put more effort into our relationship with India. There simply is no other way.

Some academics in Nepal argue that Nepal should pursue the policy of \'equi-proximity' rather than \'equi-distance' with Beijing and New Delhi. The argument is vacuous, and not just because it is mere wordplay. Such an assumption is inherently dangerous, because our northern neighbour is a friend, while our fate is inextricably intertwined with the giant surrounding us from the other three sides. During the Cold War years, such logic worked, but we must reorient our foreign policy to the new reality where, as JN Dixit puts it in his own blunt way, "National interest is the supreme consideration."

If mere proximity-or even a shared history and culture-were enough to strengthen ties between two sovereign nations, India and Pakistan would have been best of friends. The relationship between countries is like human friendship: you need to work at it.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)