Is Modi’s new dawn fading?

Shakhawat Liton

By inviting Saarc leaders to his swearing-in ceremony one and a half years ago, Indian PM Narendra Modi had sent a message among neighbours that they would be treated with fairness and respect in his foreign policy.

Being the premier of the world’s largest democracy, his first foreign visit to Bhutan and quick visits to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar had demonstrated his sincerity in building goodwill in the neighborhood.

His image got a further boost when he concluded a historic land boundary agreement with Bangladesh and visited Dhaka in June this year. He himself compared the land boundary agreement after four decades with the “fall of the Berlin wall”.

For observers, his actions demonstrated his sincerity and goodwill to India’s neighbours ushering in a new dawn in regional cooperation efforts.

But what Delhi has been doing with Nepal has surprised many and raised questions about the Modi-led Indian government’s sincerity to maintain friendly relations and cooperation with neighbouring countries. Delhi’s alleged meddling with Nepal’s internal politics over the promulgation of a new constitution for the Himalayan country has cast a shadow of doubt on the whole goodwill projection.

Nepal’s new constitution has annoyed Indian policymakers. Even after passage of the constitution, the Indian foreign secretary was dispatched to Nepal to explain Delhi’s displeasure. The foreign secretary reportedly suggested changes in the constitution including addressing the grievances of Madhesis who are people of Indian origin, living in Terai, the plain land in the south adjoining Bihar in India.

Their suggestions were not followed in the new charter.

The ethnic Madhesi community has been waging agitation in the Madhesh for the last two months demanding a separate province for them. The United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) has intensified their agitation which turned violent after enactment of the constitution.

Protests and demonstrations called by Madhes-based political parties in key Nepal-India customs points have made the political unrest worst. Agitating Madhesis blocked the road entering Nepal from India.

India seems to have taken advantages of the unrest and imposed unofficial blockade from September 23, days after the enactment of the new constitution by reportedly asking its officials at the borders points not to allow vehicles to enter Nepal.

The Himalayan nation gets all of its petroleum products from India. It is also largely dependent on India for all its essentials. The blockade turned out to be a nightmare for Nepal, a country affected by a massive earthquake in April killing more than 9000. It caused severe shortage of fuel and other essentials, affecting life across the country.

The fuel shortage also hampered aid works. Hundreds of tonnes of food aid meant for the earthquake victims are reportedly stuck in warehouses. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator on October 16 warned that Nepal’s aid agencies had just weeks left to deliver aid to high-altitude areas before they would be cut off by snow. “Acute shortages in fuel supplies continue to impede planned deliveries to affected villages and trailheads,” the office said in a statement.

Al Jazeera in a report on October 20 said Nepal’s vital tourism sector is facing a double whammy amid acute fuel shortages that have quashed hopes of an economic recovery following the cataclysmic April 25 earthquake.

As a result of the fuel shortages, Nepal’s economy is being strangled. Ordinary Nepalese citizens are bearing the brunt of the shortages, after fuel and cooking gas became black-market commodities that only the privileged few can afford, reports Al Jazeera.

TIME in its report on October 19 said regardless of intention, the impact has been substantial. In early October, Nepal’s scant reserves neared exhaustion and the government was forced to introduce fuel rationing. Since then, the effects have spread to every sector.

“Buses are severely overloaded, private transport uncomfortably expensive. Getting petrol requires waiting for hours, or even days, on queue for the government ration or paying black market rates out of reach for most Nepalese. Ambulances don’t have enough petrol to operate, hospitals are running out of supplies, social services severely curtailed.”

People of Nepal are accusing India for their ongoing sufferings. They staged demonstrations denouncing India’s action resulting in the blockade. Though very small in size, some Nepalese nationals living in Dhaka have also taken to the streets protesting India’s action. India has also been criticised in newspapers and social media as it is popularly believed the blockade is an expression of India’s disapproval of Nepal’s new constitution.

Delhi has denied any political interference. “The reported obstructions are due to unrest, protests and demonstrations on the Nepalese side, by sections of their population,” said a statement issued on the Indian Foreign Ministry website on Sept. 25. It has also said its truck drivers and tourists are too scared to enter Nepal because of violence and unrest in the Terai region.

But Delhi’s claims fails to satisfy the suffering people in Nepal and others who strongly believe that India is responsible for the crisis in Nepal. The undeniable truth is people in Nepal have been suffering from the blockade.

Nepal finally raised the issue before the UN and what it told the world is not pleasant for India.

Speaking at the UN in Geneva on November 4 Nepal’s deputy prime minister, Kamal Thapa said his country was facing a humanitarian crisis due to the blockade.

Nepal’s new Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli on November 6 said the blockade is ‘more inhuman than a war’.

Members of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) on Sunday urged the Indian authorities to immediately lift the unofficial blockade.

It looks like Modi has lost more than he gained with this policy. Modi’s popularity is declining in Nepal says an opinion piece by Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor in chief of The Kathmandu Post, published in The New York Times on November 6. He says Modi is now an object of scorn there.

Modi’s effigies have been burned, and a #BackoffIndia hashtag was recently trending on Twitter. While Nepal’s allies, including China, welcomed the new Constitution, India merely “noted” it, writes Akhilesh.

Drawing up a new constitution was certainly a major political achievement for Nepal. The demand for a new constitution was raised by Maoists rebels, who had waged a 10-year civil war that ended with a 2006 peace deal. The Maoists won elections to a constituent assembly two years later, leading to the abolition of the 240-year-old monarchy. But because of a lack of consensus, that assembly had failed to draw up a new constitution.

A new assembly elected in 2013 is once more dominated by the traditional parties. This time too, political squabbles delayed matters but finally Nepal’s constituent assembly has been able to enact the constitution which has been described by many as progressive.

After this historic moment Nepal was supposed to celebrate the achievement. But the ongoing crisis has dampened the spirit. And it is because of the constitution and Delhi cannot shirk the responsibility for the present situation in Nepal.

How much did Delhi gain out of the situation in Nepal? The answer is not clear. But one thing is certain that Delhi has lost enormously in this crisis. Modi must do something extraordinary to repair the damage. Otherwise, the promised new dawn for regional cooperation risks going back to darkness.

Policymakers in Delhi should not forget that their relentless efforts to transform India into a global power will always have a boost only when they will not play “Big Brother” to neighbors and maintain the attitude of ”Elder Brother” with care.

Source: The Daily Star

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