India, Nepal have to act bold and enter into a ‘special relationship‘

India and Nepal meet everywhere: Sovereigns to independence, democracy to pluralism, biodiversity to livelihood, folk tales to religious spaces and fossil fuel to pharmaceuticals. Their paths have encompassed freedom struggles, migration, disasters, transborder environmental injuries, hydrological flows, currency, yoga, sports, connectography, health and education.

However, in the last seven decades, we have often seen relations marred by issues such as domination, disregard for each other’s national security interests, brazen interference and micro-management. Meeting points are vast, deeper and objectively quantifiable, whereas points of discord and apprehensions are largely subjective and (mis)perception-based.

This relationship has been established in four distinct interactive terrains: people-to-people, civil society, business-commercial and government-to-government. These matrices, buttressed by an open border regime, make this relation unique and special, the main being the people-to-people . However, the nature of State formation, foreign policy orientation and governance structure and power echelons on both sides of the border somehow put the government-to-government relation at the forefront.

This overwhelming domination of governments, underplaying and even neglecting the other three core interactive terrains, invariably creates some sort of an awkward situation, bilateral imbroglios and economic blockades. The government-led relationship could work effectively in other geographies and countries but not between India and Nepal as the bilateral flows are historically so natural, smooth and unhindered.

The people-to-people exchanges are neutral to the government and political formations. They have remained unaffected even in acute conflict situations such as the Maoist movement. However, the discourse and debate have always remained government-driven and nation-centric. As a result, day-to-day-incidents and events tend to overtake the ‘eternal and exemplary’ relationship, thereby making Nepal more India-obsessed and the later more narrowly engaged.

Therefore, when India and Nepal rethink and renegotiate their relationship, could the roles of these four interactive matrices be re-prioritised, and also firmly institutionalised? Except the fringe elements, it’s these three crucial stakeholders who have propagated and sustainably conserved and secured the national interest of both these countries. This means that people-to-people inter-dependence must lead the relationship along with civil society and business-commercial level interactions.

And let the government-to-government deliberations, negotiations and operational details be carried out to facilitate these other aspects. Let the three actors be the determinants in the relationship. This is where both India and Nepal can propagate a new policy of neighbourhood nirvana. This may look ludicrous to the status quoists but people want this out-of-the-box thinking to be operationalised.

This is where the conventionally dominant Delhi-Kathmandu axis could be substantially based on the new models like India’s ‘cooperative federalism’ and Nepal’s newly-evolving constructive federalism. Nepal’s new provinces could now interact with the bordering Indian states more intimately and formally. Borderland physical and social infrastructures projects like universities, technical and professional institutions, hospitals, industries, trading centres, tourism, pilgrimage and training and skill-building centres could take the form of the Bhairawa-Gorakhpur-Delhi and Ilam-Darjeeling-North East India economic corridors.

After the Peace and Friendship Treaty was signed in 1950, India emerged as the first major donor country with grants, loans and technical cooperation for N epal. For decades, India remained the dominant development partner in fields ranging from highways, hydel projects, hospitals and airports, education, communications, industries, joint ventures to migration management and agriculture. Newer varieties of cross-border infrastructure projects such as the 400 KV Muzaffarpur-Dhalkebar electricity transmission line and Amlekhgunj-Pathlaiya cross-border oil pipeline have started.

Today multilateral agencies and non-governmental actors with diverse functional principles and actions make Nepal a complex and challenging development constituency. Their access to and deeper influence on the nation’s policy-making system along with projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiatives are bound to make this Himalayan republic a place of global interest. These could change the orientation of an‘erstwhile land-locked country and entice Nepal to renegotiate its historical equidistance philosophy based on strategic posturing with a more radical and practically gainful repositioning.

India is a regional pivot, and has to consciously move from its conventional role of providing economic assistance to generating adequate bilateral space for inter-dependence. Here Nepal must become a partner and not a hapless recipient.

Supporting Nepal in creating and building institutions is critical. Infrastructure pertaining to new federal units in terms of governance, revenue and income generation, employment creation and building and management of basic public amenities such as roads, communications, energy and water and environment are needed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advocacy of Highways, Information Technology and Transmission lines (HIT) during his maiden visit to Nepal in 2014 resonates in Kathmandu.

India’s major foray should be in innovation and technology transfer, multidisciplinary dialogues, educational and technical institutions, local and global migration management and skills and capacity-building. Nepal could be the fountainhead of climate change knowledge and connect to India’s larger dynamics of the management of the ecology of hills and mountains.

Can India think of building a far-reaching institutional architecture, such a common market between the two countries? Can India formally include Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal in its Act East Policy and give them unhindered access to South East Asia through the Northeast? India and Nepal have to think big. They have to act bold and enter into a new special relationship. The older parameters, traditional variables and orthodox institutional thinking of the special relationship are now outdated and ineffective. They have become irritants in the designing of a 21st century relationship.

Mahendra P Lama is member of the Eminent Persons Group from India and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University

The views expressed are personal