The meaning of ‘larger game’ in Nepal

Nepal is at the brink of political and social breakdown. It is indeed unprecedented, and somewhat artificial, that a sovereign and stable country with a history of over 300 years, has reached to this stage within a period of two decades or so.  Almost all sectors of the government are dysfunctional with ad-hoc policies and corrupt leadership. Celebrated national level leaders, high ranking officials and intellectuals are discredited with corruption scandals. Culturally, Nepalese have almost forgotten their own language, culture and tradition. English curriculum and western culture adopted for primary education. Secondary and higher education is almost collapsed by partition politics. It appears that there is a deliberate attempt to erase Nepal as a sovereign state with its own history. What has not unfolded as yet is the purpose of investing so much of resources for dismantling a tradition-bound peaceful country. What is India’s intention here in Nepal? And, is Nepal itself becoming a launching ground for propelling the western strategic plan for India and China?

This article highlights some of the symptoms of the crises and suggests some policy proposals for course correction before the situation gets out of control.

Under the prevailing international geo-political and anti-Hindu agenda, the Western political and non-political power-groups, in collaboration with their local agents, have made Nepal a “federal, secular, republic” state. The Maoist insurgency and the so-called fast-track method of framing the new constitution are the result of this collaboration. The externally designed framework of governance was unsuitable to the socially interconnected and geographically inter-dependent ground reality of Nepal. Frequent changes of governments and leadership, and power struggle among political parties are witnessed since the promulgation of the new constitution. Political leaders have lost moral authority and trust among the people.

It also appears that there is a deliberate effort to dismantle governance structure of Nepal. Earlier structure based on inter-regional dependence, tradition, culture and harmony among multi-ethnic society was dismantled with a new structure, which could not establish its relevance and trust. Widespread corruption and governance failures are witnessed in every sector. Lack of accountability and transparency exacerbates corrupt practices in development efforts, leaving the population disillusioned and vulnerable.

Economy is at the verge of collapse. Nearly 10 million people (out of 30 million population) are said to have migrated – for education, job or permanent residence. Almost all major industries, based on local raw materials, are closed. Remittance is the major source of revenue. Over 95% of goods and services, many of which could have been produced locally, are imported – trade deficit sky rocketed.

With the effect of climate change, Nepal is moving towards environmental catastrophe in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. There is an increasing trend of forest fire, mostly in the Chure hills, in recent years. On the other hand, due to the Maoist insurgency and fear-based politics, the rural youths were pushed to cities and overseas for employment and income. Over 500,000 rural houses are said to be empty and 25% of arable land is barren due to labour shortage. It has adversely affected the crop-livestock-forestry mixed agriculture system of hills and mountains. The rural economy is not only a bedrock of sustainable rural livelihood of Nepal, but also a precondition for maintaining the fragile ecosystem of Himalayas.

Rapid deforestation, haphazard construction, urbanization and widespread quarrying of construction materials, coupled with the effect of climate change, the depletion of Himalayan glacier lakes has increased and the frequency, intensity and ferocity of monsoon flood disaster have increased at alarming level in recent years. These environmental catastrophes have already caused adverse impact to the livelihood of rural people of Nepal (as well as over 400 million people of Ganga Basin of UP, Bihar and West Bengal of India).

Either by coincidence or design, India is perceived to have played the role for the demise of the earlier constitution (as well as the monarchy) of Nepal. Sadly, this change was instrumental to push Nepal into this crisis. The prevailing mass unemployment, widespread corruption, lawlessness has been a fertile ground for germinating extremism and social unrest with an anti-India bent of mind.

In the new context that India and China are emerging as global power, an independent Nepal in between the two countries may be useful for both of them. However, as Nepal is closer to India from its historical, cultural, religious and environment perspective, more policy level research and discussion is required on, among others, political, economic and environment cooperation between the two countries.

Some ambiguous cultural dimensions of recent years make further interesting. The purpose of burgeoning investment in large monasteries around Kathmandu Valley, fast growing Muslim population and Madrasas along Nepal-India border and the rapid expansion of Christianity across the country do not provide a clear picture. Similarly, the anti-India sentiment has further increased with the recent agitation of victims of high-rent-seeking money lenders and microfinance, organised by an activist Durga Prasai, who alleged that 16 large Marwadi business houses have earned illegal money through the micro finance, banks and monopoly business, in collaboration with high bureaucrats and politician, and syphoned profits to overseas leaving Nepal a bankrupt country.

In the current geo-political scenario, there is a risk that such sentiment may be hijacked by internal and external power groups for developing Nepal as a launching pad for propelling the anger through caste, culture and religion-based politics to the heartland of India and the Tibet of China. Hence it is high time to intervene with a decisive action.

Strategy for sustainable development of the Himalayan region:
History is the witness that over the past 300 years, Nepal has played an important role as a soft “yam” in between two giant countries:  colonial British India to the south and imperial China to the north.  After 1951, when Nepal embarked upon its journey to the international stage, it played a cautious role in every major policy debate. However, over the past two decades, when the Maoist insurgency pulled apart this traditional order, the delicate harmony of multi-cultural society within Nepal as well as the relationship with the neighbouring countries based on age-old established tradition and mutual trust, seem to be shaking. Hence, before it gets worse, some correction measures are required. Moreover, as mentioned earlier that the general perception that India was behind this political change, and therefore a growing anti-India sentiment in Nepal, the Indian support for the course correction of Nepal will retain the mutual trust as earlier. For course correction, the following specific policy agendas can be suggested.

First, Nepal´s strategy for survival, let alone for economic prosperity, needs to be reimagined based on its own carrying capacity and ground reality. The country, which is situated in the foothills of fragile Himalayan Mountain, cannot imagine its developmental path based on road connectivity to each and every village, construction of hydroelectric projects in all rivers, building of cement factories in every lime deposit of Chure Hills and quick money making through gold smuggling to the Indian market. Perhaps, its developmental journey could be based on sustainable development of Himalayan region in order to mitigate the adverse effect of climate change of the Himalayan frontier, which is already affecting the livelihood of the population of the entire Ganga Basin. Nepal should invest more to generate specific knowledge and include in the policy agenda of India, Nepal and China.

Second, on the structural side, there is a growing demand for a fundamental review of the present constitution. However, with the mindset of the present leadership, it is unlikely that such fundamental correction is possible. Instead, a national consensus could be established, perhaps with the backstopping support of India and China, to reinstate the 2047 Constitution. The earlier constitution was based on age-old governance system of Nepal. It recognized the national identity of Nepal as Hindu Kingdom and two-pillar system of governance, comprising the Royal Institution and political parties. It had pursued several policies such as unitary system of governance with 75 districts for area specific development; education and health to all; equitable development across the country; industrialization based on local raw materials etc.

Third, with the migration of rural youths to cities and overseas, the crop-livestock-forestry mixed agriculture system of hills and mountains has collapsed. Hence, Nepal should engage with India to develop and market green products like organic agriculture, herbal products, renewable energy, fresh water and carbon trade etc.  India should encourage its private sector to invest in such production for Indian market.  Should the production and marketing chain be developed, the effect of climate change can be mitigated and poverty of the entire Ganga basin of India and Nepal can be eliminated.

In the new context that India and China are emerging as global power, an independent Nepal in between the two countries may be useful for both of them. However, as Nepal is closer to India from its historical, cultural, religious and environment perspective, more policy level research and discussion is required on, among others, political, economic and environment cooperation between the two countries. Based on such research and discussion, policies for Nepal and India can be developed, which will be more convergent to each other and address the new challenges.