Writing about the importance of wielding hard and soft power wisely, in the book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics , Joseph Nye said about the U.S. what could well apply to India as well: “In this new world of transnational threats and the information age, it is not just whose army or muscle power wins, it’s whose story wins.”
In the past two months, India must conclude, sadly, that its story on Nepal is not winning and its soft power is being eroded on a daily basis. This weekend’s events, with the temporary detention of 13 Seema Sashastra Bal personnel by Nepal’s Armed Police Force personnel and the Nepal government’s decision to take Indian channels off air, only drive the point home that Nepal is rejecting India’s power, both hard and soft.
No one can legitimately question India’s right to be concerned about the lack of inclusion in Nepal’s Constitution, given the very special role India has always played in its neighbour’s affairs. But the Narendra Modi government’s actions in the past few months stand out as a manual on how not to respond to a country’s decision that one disagrees with and seeks to change.
Meaning of power Power in the 21st century is no longer about the subjugation of other countries or peoples; in today’s world, it is about controlling the actions of others. One way of doing it is hard or military power, by promising protection to countries one wishes to influence, or by threatening force. Soft power, or the power of persuasion by incentives, appealing to shared values, or being a good example oneself, is the other.
India is home to lakhs of Nepalis and shares a unique bond with Nepal’s Army. It also shares 1,750 km and three of four boundaries with the land-locked nation. In particular, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen, just a year back, as the most charismatic man in Nepal; he visited the country twice in 2014. If with all of this capital, India today stands in danger of being shut out by its Himalayan neighbour, regardless of whether it is all of Nepal or just the government in Kathmandu that desires it, it is necessary to ask one basic question: why? Why has its diplomacy and power failed so miserably?
The simple answer is that having secured the majority required for passing its Constitution, the Nepal government doesn’t see the reason for consensus. Faced with Madhes protests, it finds it easier to blame India for interference and build the narrative that India is punishing the country with crippling fuel and food shortages.
However, the answer also requires the Indian government to take a long hard look at its actions of the past two months in three distinct spaces: Kathmandu, India, and in the world.
In Kathmandu, its blunders are self-evident. From failing to check the constitutional process when there was a chance, the government took to bullying and blustering. It sent Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar on a last-minute mission in calling off the Constitution, that was guaranteed to fail. And then it followed that up with a concerted effort to keep Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli out of power, which also failed.
Inside India, the government erred in building a narrative that seemed motivated by electoral politics in Bihar. The ruling party’s poll campaign hit an unmistakably anti-Nepali note, where being seen as standing up for Madhesi rights went down well with their Bihari relatives just across the border. In doing this, the government clearly ignored the danger in risking bilateral ties for domestic grandstanding, much like the United Progressive Alliance government did in the past with the Land Boundary Agreement or with the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils.
But it is on the international stage where the government may have stumbled the most, ceding influence to other players. Its decisions to raise criticism of Nepal at the United Nations and the Human Rights Council, and to insert critical references to Nepal and Maldives into the joint statement with the U.K., have been hailed by the foreign office as evidence of support for India’s stand. However, conversely, it also denotes the insertion of the U.K. and other countries into India’s relations with its neighbours, one that may have a more long-standing impact. All of this denotes a disquieting desire to look for international approval for Indian actions, which comes at the cost of losing influence with the neighbouring countries being castigated.
This loss may not be restricted to its two smallest and most dependent neighbours alone — officials in both Bhutan and Bangladesh say they are watching the situation closely, even as the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement awaits ratification. Sri Lanka’s closeness to the U.S. should send out alarm signs in Delhi as much as Beijing’s has in the past, however much the two sides claim to be on the same page.
When asked, both officials and analysts alike say that as the big country in its neighbourhood, India will inevitably face what the U.S., Russia and China do, and be resented for its size no matter what it does for its neighbours — “Damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t”. This is a defeatist outlook. Instead the government must pause to consider why Nepal is so resistant to its messages on political inclusion, which requires more direct bilateral engagement, not the aggressive issuance of unilateral press statements, or negative comments in joint statements with other countries. New Delhi must now pursue a new narrative with Kathmandu, one that will build, as Nye said, a “story that wins”, for India’s power in the neighbourhood.