The general attitude among Nepalis is that whatever their southern neighbour does for them is in its own interest.
A leading Bollywood actress of the 1990s (still a diva on the small screen) – famously said in a live interview on a FM channel in Kathmandu: “Nepal is the most beautiful state of India“. She had to be escorted out through the back gate of the hotel in Lazimpat and put on the next flight to Delhi. Then there was Sahib Singh Verma, who in trying to elaborate on his close ties with the people of Nepal said, “Both my cook and watchman are from Nepal.” After the so-called Hrithik Roshan riots – the actor was quoted as saying, “How can I say anything abusive about Nepalis? I was brought up by a Nepali nanny.” Anecdotes of such insensitive gaffes by Indians abound. These are unpardonable and not funny even in retrospect.
I have a special affinity for Nepal having lived there for some years during its most tumultuous period between the late 1990s and early 2000s that saw the Maoist insurgency reaching its peak, the royal massacre, the hijacking of IC-814 and anti-India riots. There is a long-standing joke among expatriates in Nepal: “You cry twice. Once when you arrive in Kathmandu and the next only when you are leaving.” In between, you spend what could probably be some of the best years of your life. So, when we moved back to India we carried with us precious memories and left behind many good friends who have graciously made us a part of their extended family. Thanks to social media, a virtual cosy club has emerged with an eclectic band of members, ranging from corporate executives, business honchos, bankers, diplomats, journalists and quite a few embassy officials (from the “other side” as they were discreetly referred to) who later went on to occupy very senior positions in their “parent” services back home. Then there is always the common watering hole in Delhi – the IIC bar – where one regularly runs into visiting Nepali politicians and journalists.
Here I must hasten to add: before I’m branded as an honorary member of the “Kathmandu Elite”, my experience and network wasn’t limited to the “Valley” alone. Unlike most Indians who seldom venture beyond Pokhara and Dhulikhel – as a friend who later rose to the highest office in Delhi’s CGO complex off Lodhi Road used to joke – being an itinerant salesman I had to cover (sometimes on foot) regions from distant Baglung in the west, remote Palpa in the middle to Dhankuta in the east. My factory was plonk in the heart of the Terai – in the Maoist-infested belt of Makwanpur district bordering Chitwan. So, though I don’t claim to be a “Nepal expert”, my connections with the erstwhile “Himalayan Kingdom” still run quite deep.
My first lesson upon landing in Kathmandu came from a peer in a multinational company. “Nepalis love everything Indian except Indians,” he told me. At the ground level, I saw that being reflected in my business itself. Our company products that poured across the border from India sold at a premium. Whereas, same brands manufactured in Nepal, with identical formulation and packaging, were not preferred as they were made by an “Indian subsidiary”. (We were able to overcome this marketing challenge over a period – but that’s a different story.) As one drives into Kathmandu from the airport, it is impossible to miss the grand Birendra International Convention Centre (now turned into a make shift Constitutional Assembly House), “gifted to the People of Nepal” by their northern neighbours China. Adding to the chaotic traffic are LPG-operated eco-friendly mini public transport vehicles – another visible example of Chinese generosity. The Nepalis are football fanatics. The earthquake-resistant Kathmandu Stadium, which China helped build originally for the SAARC games, but which is now used mostly for football, still stands firm even after many adjoining structures were damaged by recent quakes. These are intelligent interventions that help China get huge PR bang for its yuans. In contrast, one would be hard put to find any prominent landmark of Indian make, though I am sure India outspends China by many times over in Nepal by way of aid and financial assistance.
Raising this with the Indian establishment would always elicit a defensive response, such as “do you know every two rupees out of three in Nepal come from India?” and rattle out statistics about how much is doled out by way of Gorkha pension alone. Therein lies the rub of big-brotherly arrogance (and, a sense of entitlement). Also there is the mandatory reference to the famous east-west link between Kankarbhitta in the east to Banbasa (Uttarkhand) in the west – undoubtedly an excellent road. The Nepali would tell you how India exercised its veto power to keep out all foreign bidders (including China) on the plea of strategic significance of the road so close to the border and then took years to complete the job using out-dated construction practices. The underlying subtext was that the Chinese would have done the job faster and better, and there was a feeling that it was a deliberate attempt to delay the project as India doesn’t really care for Nepal’s development.
I once asked an Indian ambassador why the Nepalese were so anti-Indian when most of their leaders had studied and even lived in India for long periods. He chuckled at my naiveté and said,”You know all the Afghans who went to study in Soviet Russia came back as anti-Russian.” Notwithstanding that, still there are queues at the Indian embassy to secure admission in Indian colleges. Many candidates are taken at the recommendation of politicians (while there are also rumours about “selling” of seats by junior embassy staff). But, that doesn’t help soften the stance of either the politicians or the students towards India, after their return from India.
The general attitude among Nepalis is that whatever India does for them is in India’s own interest (a small price for securing Nepal’s borders) and is their birthright. This was manifest during the recent earthquake relief mission. But, what China and other countries do is “without strings attached” and, therefore, deserves recognition and reciprocation in kind.
Indian diplomats are the most sought after set for politicians in Kathmandu. The “minister” of the consular section is an all-season favourite, especially so before elections – for reasons not difficult to understand. It is said that Nepal is perhaps the only country where the Indian ambassador can feel like the US ambassador in a Third World country. But, how much clout they actually wield is a matter of debate.
One ambassador who had served in neighbouring SAARC countries told me it was most difficult to operate in Nepal because there was no clear and consistent (and, often, not coherent) policy towards Nepal. Too many interest groups try to influence India’s position in Nepal. Apart from politicians (of them the strongest lobby is obviously from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh) within the government itself, four channels operate simultaneously, namely the MEA, MHA (IB), PMO (read R&AW) and Army (military intelligence), not necessarily on the same wavelength. But, the most meddlesome he thought was a group which he called the “feudacracy”. These were the so-called “royals” from India – who had strong links with Nepal through marriage ties. Therefore, one station head of R&AW, with an earthy sense of humour would often quip, “We, of course, always act in India’s best interest. But, does India know what its interests are?”
Till now, if one asked a Nepali friend which was the biggest flashpoint in the history of the India-Nepal relationship, most would say the 1989-’90 blockade – the trigger for which they believe was the alleged incident of the then Indian prime minister’s Christian wife (Italian) being refused entry into the Pashupatinath temple. Now, there will be a new “blockade” to talk about for years to come – unintentionally wiping out not just the memories of the Congress era but also the goodwill generated by Narendra Modi’s “Nepal ka Dard, Hamara Dard” visit.