Is the perceived Indian blockade of Nepal, which started on September 23, three days after Nepal’s new constitution was promulgated, New Delhi’s biggest foreign policy error in recent times? The Modi magic, which had won over all shades of Nepalese just a year ago, seems to have evaporated completely through inappropriate and heavy diplomatic intervention. A softer and defter touch was needed in supporting the Madhesi cause over the constitution without ruffling too many Pahadi feathers. India may be on the right side of history, but certainly on the wrong side of a majority of the Nepalese.
Prime Minister Modi is exceptionally intuitive in sensing the moment. He could have salvaged the situation three weeks ago when the K.P. Oli government demonstrated some earnestness in tabling the constitutional amendments which the government of India welcomed as a “positive step” and “the basis of resolution of the current impasse”. But India pressed the pause button after the Madhesis rejected the proposal.
Oli called up Modi a fortnight ago, explaining that he was not anti-India as was being made out. Both agreed that a durable solution had to be found with Modi emphasising on consensus being the basis of the constitution. But the constitutional logjam shows no signs of easing. It appears that the short- and long-term consequences of the blockade for ordinary Nepalese and its impact on India have not been factored in by the Indian leadership. Nearly 80 per cent of all consumer and utility goods, medicines and 100 per cent of petroleum products and gas to Nepal are imported from or through India. The most seriously affected are those who live in the Kathmandu valley, which bore the brunt of the massive earthquake in April.
I have been travelling to Nepal since 1959 and have visited Kathmandu and the hinterland thrice since the protest and blockade started. Nearly everyone, especially the media, refers to the current humanitarian crisis as the result of the Indian blockade. “Why has India done this?” Nepalese ask me. “Why is India punishing us and sending Nepal back to the stone age? Please ask Modi to lift the blockade. As a big country, India has committed a sin against a small neighbour.” Modi has been burnt in effigies and there have been posters asking Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae to go back. Anti-India sentiment is deep, genuine and spread across Nepal, even among children. More than three million children are at the risk of death and disease in the winter months because of severe shortage of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines from India, says a UNICEF report.
The blockade has led to a thriving black market and a parallel economy. It has led to polarisation between Pahadis and Madhesis and has created space for China. The Madhesis being shortchanged over the constitution is a secondary issue for them. The message for India is to “stop micromanaging our internal affairs”. The India-Madhes blockade has sown the seeds of distrust, ill-will and suspicion and has damaged India-Nepal relations.
The Modi touch is badly needed to stop the drift. Removing myths and misperceptions about the blockade is essential. A C-17 Globemaster and a C-130 Hercules aircraft should immediately fly into Kathmandu and Pokhara carrying essential medicines, supplies and goodwill.
The author is a retired major general from the Gorkha Rifles regiment of the Indian Army.