By Maila Baje
After much grousing and groaning over China’s eternally expanding footprint in Nepal since 2006, Indian officialdom grudgingly acknowledged its inability to match Beijing’s deep pockets. The Indian refrain became that New Delhi should focus on such advantages as political, social, cultural, religious links with Nepal.
While more and more Indians privately acknowledge their government’s role in smoothing China’s path in Nepal, they understandably abhor making a public show of compunction. After all, you would have to acknowledge the profound irony behind the campaign to oust the monarchy for being excessively pro-Chinese. Yet democracy being such an enormous fig leaf, open-ended experimentation in self-defeating desolation continues to provide smug satisfaction to its architects.
What is also palpable of late is the new phase the Indian establishment has entered in its reconciliation with the reality of China’s growing presence in Nepal. According to the new thinking, Chinese-built infrastructure in Nepal would actually be in India’s interest. The latest spokesman for this school of thought is Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal who went on to serve as his country’s foreign secretary.
Instead of getting worked up about Nepal turning to China for travel and transit solutions, Rasgotra counseled at a public function the other day, India should welcome it. “If at all China does build a railway line from Lhasa to Kathmandu, it could someday be connected to the line that India is taking from Raxaul to Kathmandu. And if we have, in the meantime, come up with a practical definition of the Line of Actual Control, the railway line could be extended right through Sarnath and Gaya, to Bangalore and Hyderabad and even connect the ports on the west coast,” Rasgotra suggested, emphasizing the possible emergence of economic hubs along the transit route.
Rasgotra was speaking after receiving the Professor M.L. Sondhi Prize for International Politics 2018 in New Delhi. Sondhi was among the rare Indian academics who continually emphasized in 1989-1990 the need for understanding Nepal’s compulsions in seeking to bolster security relations with China, instead of embarking full speed on a punitive course that would ultimately end up alienating the Nepali people.
A close confidant of Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party, Rasgotra in his latest speech was full of praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic skills. Thus, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the thrust of his comments should comport with the foreign policy vision being articulated by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
In a recent speech in Singapore, Jaishankar argued: “India’s diplomatic agenda has broadened considerably, as indeed have its partners in those endeavors. We share with the international community the objective that a multi-polar world should have a multi-polar Asia at its core. And to ensure that, India needs to follow an approach of working with multiple partners on different agendas. Obviously, they would each have their importance and priority.”
While the theme of Jaishankar’s speech was represented as ‘beyond non-alignment’, some audiences might be inclined to see the emerging doctrine as an attempt at being everything to everybody. Indeed, leaving quarters as distinct as Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo and Brussels in perpetual suspense would require enough dexterity and skill to qualify the endeavor as a foreign policy school in itself.
Deep pockets India may not have, but no one can accuse it of having a shallow imagination. Might China balk at India’s desire to free-ride on Beijing-built infrastructure in Nepal or band together?