10-16 July 2015 #766

The trilateral path

Nepal stands to benefit from the rapprochement between India and China, and not just in earthquake reconstruction
Bihari K Shrestha
During his visit to China last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a pitch for trilateral cooperation to help Nepal with earthquake assistance. He and Chinese president Xi Jing Ping agreed to work with Nepal for mutually coordinated reconstruction and rehabilitation.

No doubt, this is a great leap forward in Indian foreign policy, which has traditionally preferred to deal with its neighbours bilaterally. In fact, New Delhi has steadfastly opposed any attempt by Nepal and Bangladesh to work together with India in regulating the flow of Himalayan rivers.

At the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction in Kathmandu on 25 June, India and China together pledged more than half the $4.4 billion in grants and loans – leaving Nepal’s traditional bilateral donors trailing far behind. This was the best indication yet of how the world’s economic power centre has shifted to Asia. It is Nepal’s great fortune that we have these two giants as our immediate neighbours to the north and south.

Nepal’s governance failure pre-dates the earthquake. In fact, ever since 1990, we have seen a polarised partisan paralysis that has kept Nepal from leaping ahead in energy, infrastructure, investment and tourism. Even with Nepal’s much-touted successes in community forestry and maternal-child health, the groundwork was laid with the move towards decentralised development during the Panchayat.

For now, it is clear that Nepal’s needs in post-earthquake reconstruction is not so much in cash to rebuild physical infrastructure, but to enhance our governance and management capabilities. That is not something money can buy.

Besides their monetary assistance, therefore, India and China should aim at building the management capacity of their landlocked neighbour so that it is able to emulate both of them in accelerated, sustainable and equitable growth. India, under Prime Minister Modi, has departed significantly from the policies of previous New Delhi rulers in dealing with neighbours and beyond.

Indian analysts themselves have said that New Delhi’s earlier strategy was to create ‘intrinsic instability’ in the neighbourhood in order to gain advantage in bilateral dealings with them. India seems to have shed this policy and, particularly in relation to constitution drafting in Nepal, has left it more or less to the elected Constituent Assembly to come up with its own solution. There seems to be a sense that Nepali politics is so unpredictable that micromanaging affairs here either backfires, or is counterproductive to India’s own interest.

China and India are bound by a convergence of interests in Nepal’s stability. China has an additional sensitivity about Tibet, and has been openly casting doubts about whether ethnicity-based federalism along Nepal’s northern border is desirable in the long term.

The failure of Westminster-style democracy in Nepal to ensure development, growth and stability worries both our neighbours. With its feudalistic and stratified state structure, a large proportion of the population has been confined to perpetual poverty. The entrenched interest of the high caste elite who have traditionally dominated rent-seeking extraction from the governance process has kept the country backward. Chronic corruption among politicians, the bureaucracy and even the private sector is just one of the manifestations of this culture. So, while most people have continued to suffer in this ‘democracy’, its elected leaders seem to be always in the seats of power to perpetuate their plunder and neglect.

Now, following the massive commitment of aid for earthquake rebuilding there is new dynamic in sight. The constitution-drafting process has dragged on through two elections since 2008, but a handful of politicians have now got together to bulldoze a new constitution through the CA and the so-called public hearing process. The driving force here is not the constitution, as we all know, but power-sharing in a new national government that will include the opposition which wants its hands in the earthquake relief honeypot.

However, without some far reaching transformation in the political culture, even the massive earthquake aid package would be unable to make a lasting impact on the lives of the poor in this country. What Nepal needs is the reformulation of her polity to build democracy from the grassroots up. Since both India and China have dealt with Nepal’s politicians from close quarters, the two countries must contribute to redefine Nepal’s democracy and eventually help the country grow to become a well-governed and prosperous neighbour between them.

Read also:

“India wants to start afresh in Nepal”

India-China bhai-bhai

Touchy-feely bilateral relationships, Ass

Political tectonics

Rebuilding ourselves, Editorial

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