A Year to Remedy India’s waning Public Diplomacy in Nepal

By — Eerishika Pankaj;

This piece was originally published on NIICE, Nepal Read it here.

Elections in Nepal were a carefully watched and monitored affair by its Himalayan neighbours. India and China, in constant competition for economic and political clout in Kathmandu, were keen to show their support for democratic processes in Nepal to bring to power candidates favourable to their long-term goals. China won this dance with the election victory of Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as Prime Minister of Nepal and former Nepali Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli as his king-maker. The coalition of Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) had strengthened left-wing communist rhetoric in India’s backyard, laying the groundwork for grander ideological complementarity between China and Nepal. The loss of India-backed Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress was a sign of the failing diplomatic, political and economic sway India once held, however, the recent changes, of Deuba and Prachanda coming together to form alliance is a damage control for India.

The ‘big brother’ attitude of New Delhi has over the past few years ruffled nationalist feathers in Nepal, especially as Kathmandu has exceedingly sought to build a regional power identity beyond that of a secondary player. China for its part has given Nepal that room, treating it as a partner that, albeit influenced by Beijing, is an ideological comrade with its communist neighbour. As the Nepali election is democratic in nature, and keeping in mind the fact that Deuba campaigned openly as an US and India backed candidate, the win in favour of Prachanda show that the voter base in Nepal was not convinced or swayed successfully. The focus for India to improve its ties with Nepal –even more critical under the present China-leaning government –must hence focus majorly on public diplomacy.

A major reason for India’s failing public diplomacy in Nepal is a lack of understanding of Nepal’s growing socio-political aspirations. Despite being a small, landlocked country located between rival powers India and China, albeit with a complex and diverse society, Nepal’s political landscape is dominated by competing ethnic and regional interests, and its citizens have a strong sense of national identity. In order to effectively engage with Nepal, India must understand and appreciate these factors and tailor its public diplomacy efforts accordingly. Ultimately, disconnect with Nepal’s aspirations exists as the root cause of a failing public diplomacy efforts by foreign countries.

Secondly, India’s public diplomacy in Nepal has suffered due to its heavy-handed approach. India is the dominant economic and political power in the region, and its actions often carry significant weight in Nepal. However, this has led to accusations of India trying to dictate Nepal’s domestic and foreign policies. This has generated resentment among some Nepali citizens, who view India’s actions as intrusive and paternalistic. In order to improve its public diplomacy in Nepal, India must take a more measured and consultative approach, and respect Nepal’s strong developing sense of regional identity.

A third reason for India’s failing public diplomacy in Nepal is the lack of a coherent and consistent message. India has complex and often conflicting set of interests in Nepal, and its public diplomacy efforts have not always been clear or unswerving. This inconsistency has created confusion and mistrust among Nepali citizens, who are unsure of India’s intentions and goals. In order to improve its public diplomacy in Nepal, India must develop a clear and consistent message that is aligned with Nepal’s interests and aspirations.

One way in which India could improve its public diplomacy in Nepal is by investing in people-to-people exchanges and cultural programs. Nepal is a rapidly growing country, with a large population of young people who are eager to learn and engage with the world. India could capitalise on this by providing more opportunities for Nepali citizens to study and work in India, and by promoting cultural programs that highlight the shared heritage and values of the two countries. This would help to build stronger ties between the people of India and Nepal, and foster a more positive and constructive relationship.

Another way in which India could improve its public diplomacy in Nepal is by providing more support for Nepal’s development and modernisation – and keeping this support visible to the Nepali people. For example, India’s support of the Nepali democratic process was made clear when it sent 200 vehicles to the Himalayan country to be used during the general elections. This is of important mention especially because cars in Nepal are extremely expensive, getting taxed thrice the normal rate. The traction this news brought in Nepal however remained limited to political parties and their volunteers. Other efforts, such as the aid India has provided to Nepal’s post-earthquake reconstruction efforts –especially for heritage monuments – remains behind-the-scenes vis-à-vis branding at the monuments itself. China, for its part, has propped up banners across squares in Kathmandu showing the logo of ‘China Aid for Shared Future’ proudly; such direct public diplomacy outreach has translated into tourists, locals and guides co-relating China to Nepal’s rejuvenation, which is an adverse connotation for Indian public diplomacy outreach.

Nepal faces a number of challenges, including poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment. India could play a more active role in supporting Nepal’s development efforts, by increasing technical assistance, financial support and other forms of assistance. This would help to demonstrate India’s commitment to Nepal’s well-being, and would foster a more positive and cooperative relationship between the two countries. Hydropower has seen renewed momentum in India-Nepal ties, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2022 visit to Lumbini resulting in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on hydroelectricity cooperation. The visit saw the signing of five more MoUs, with the majority being in the field of education. Such cooperation should also extend to the setting up for collaboration opportunities between Nepali and Indian think-tanks, while the Kathmandu government should attempt to set up more think-tanks that can bring Nepal’s strategic voice strongly to the global platform.

On this note, India’s Group of 20 (G20) presidency allows it the chance to restrengthen its leadership role in South Asia. India’s invitation to Nepal to participate in the G20 Finance Track has been appreciated by Kathmandu. Similarly, as Nepal looks to ratify the International Solar Alliance (ISA), focus on getting stronger India-Nepal collaborations in place for renewable energy synergy is critical, especially vis-à-vis production and supply chain reorientation wherein multilateral development banks like the Asian Development Bank can be valuable third-party additions. A recommendation for the Indian embassy in Kathmandu would be to host more public-facing engagements, especially those focusing on cultural linkages; an example of successful ground level diplomatic public outreach in this case can be taken from the US Embassy in New Delhi, which frequently hosts events at Indian heritage sights highlighting the efforts Washington is putting into Indian architectural preservation. Similar diplomatic manoeuvring by India in Nepal can help growing Chinese influence in the country by reaching direct civilian audiences, especially as India and China continue to compete in attracting Nepali students to their countries for higher studies in the hopes to build long-term connections.

By restructuring its strategies, India can build stronger and more positive ties with Nepal, and foster a more constructive and cooperative relationship. With or without the China challenge threatening Indian interests, there is an emergent need for dedicated and result oriented public diplomacy efforts to become a central tenet of India’s Neighbourhood First policy. This becomes especially vital as Delhi’s present strategy continues to face pushback from its neighbours due to their own growing sense of regional identity.

Eerishika Pankaj is the Director of New Delhi based think-tank, the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA), which focuses on decoding domestic Chinese politics and its impact on Beijing’s foreign policymaking. She is also an Editorial and Research Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia; a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program; a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section; a Member of the Indo-Pacific Circle and a Council Member of the WICCI’s India-EU Business Council. Primarily a China and East Asia scholar, her research focuses on Chinese elite/party politics, the India-China border, water and power politics in the Himalayas, Tibet, the Indo-Pacific and India’s bilateral ties with Europe and Asia.

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