It is a wonder to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi call the big boys of Silicon Valley by their first names — Sundar, Satya, John, Paul — and not add the traditional "ji" suffix that denotes respect across South Asia. In his beautifully tailored bandhgala and the fun speech written for the San Jose event by the all powerful joint secretary in the prime minister’s office, Jawed Ashraf, Modi is certainly an interesting leader to watch.
He holds his own. Like Xi Jinping and unlike a certain Manmohan Singh (“Mr President, all of India loves you,” Singh said in 2013), he doesn’t kowtow to Barack Obama — although he is smart enough to follow in the great economist’s footsteps by aligning India’s stars even more closely with those of the US. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore Narendra Modi.
Question is, whether his key aides in the foreign policy establishment, national security advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S Jaishankar, are up to the task that has devolved upon them to promote India’s "Neighbourhood First" policy.
With the crisis in Nepal escalating each day, the relationship with Pakistan down to sub-zero and home-grown dictators in the Maldives jabbing their finger in your eye, we must give thanks to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan for still holding up.
First Nepal, which has been in turmoil these last few weeks, because the Kathmandu upper-caste hill elite cutting across political lines — from prime minister Sushil Koirala to CPN-UML chief KP Oli to Maoist leader Prachanda — have passed a Constitution that discriminates against the Madhesis and the Tharus, the people of the Terai plains that border India, as well as against Nepal’s indigenous folk, the Janjatis.
It seems that caste racism runs deep. Even the great GP Koirala, who returned as Nepal’s prime minister after India helped oust the Nepal monarch, Gyanendra, in the wake of the “janandolan” agitation in 2006, resisted giving citizenship certificates to the Madhesis in 2006-07. In the end, he was persuaded to see that four million of these dark-skinned folk — the Yadavs, Jhas, Tripathis, etc — were given the “pehchaanpatra.”
India has been intimately involved in Nepal since it signed the Treaty of Friendship in 1950 and counselled then King Tribhuvan (who had fled to India), the Ranas and the Nepali Congress to take the country’s first baby steps towards democracy. Flash forward to the “jan andolan” flashpoint of 2006, when India told told Gyanendra he could no longer continue as the monarch of all he surveyed in Nepal.
So why didn’t Delhi anticipate the recent attempt to marginalise the Madhesis? And why is it now allowing an informal economic blockade to build on the India-Nepal border? First, India reportedly sent mixed messages to the Nepali leadership, allowing it to believe that the RSS/BJP would not be particularly unhappy as long as the interests of the “Hindu rashtra” were looked after.
Note that the cow has been made the national animal in the new Constitution and cow slaughter has been banned. And while all citizens are free to practice and profess their faith, “secularism” means the preservation of “dharma sanskriti (religion and culture) that has been in existence for generations”.
Second, Ajit Doval, said to be “handling” Nepal, took his eye off the game. Presumably, he was busy with Pakistan and the NSA talks-that-were-never-held. Doval is also the PM’s special representative with China, which means he is fully updated with developments in that country. The episodic attention to Nepal was a readymade recipe for disaster.
Third, by the time a furious PM asked his foreign secretary to travel to Kathmandu to make amends, it was already too late. Jaishankar’s tough and unforgiving attitude made things worse, at least in the eyes of the Nepali leadership, whom he told in no certain terms that a Constitution that marginalises the Madhesis was a bad idea. As to the 117 Madhesi MPs from parties like the Nepali Congress who voted in favour of the Constitution — evidently, there was a party whip and they couldn’t refuse — he wanted to know why they had betrayed the cause.
The real problem with the PM’s Neighbourhood First policy is that it is excitable and episodic. The Pakistan story is too old to recount. Even the success in Bangladesh almost didn’t happen when the Assam BJP wanted to keep the state out of the land boundary agreement. Now rumour is that India is about to execute yet another about-turn with the Maldives —Sushma Swaraj is expected to visit soon — and make nice with its proto-dictator Abdulla Yameen.
Remember that PM Modi had cancelled his visit to Male when Yameen threw the democratically elected former president Mohamed Nasheed into jail. India is now petrified that Yameen is opening the floodgates to China and believes it must keep the dialogue going to try and prevent that from happening. Delhi remembers well the recent Chinese statement: “The Indian Ocean is not India’s.”
Although Ajit Doval is said to be also “handling” the Maldives, he and Jaishankar clearly agree that a democrat-president can be sacrificed for a pragmatic cause (read China). It is significant that the foreign secretary didn’t bother to visit Nasheed who was under house arrest (he is since back in jail) when he visited Male a few weeks ago. In fact, if pragmatism is the name of the game in Delhi, Nasheed is among the few who can really tell Delhi about the Chinese — and what happened when they tried to woo him.
So as the prime minister charms America, flanked by his two key aides Ajit Doval and S Jaishankar, the thought surfaces: Let him also spare a thought for India’s crisis-ridden neighbourhood.