Monday, October 05, 2015

No, Nepal isn't the most beautiful state of India



A leading Bollywood actress of the 90s (still a Diva on the small screen) – famously said on a FM Channel live interview in Kathmandu: “Nepal is the most beautiful state of India’’. She had to be escorted out through the back gate of the hotel in Lazimpat and put on the next flight to Delhi. Then there was  Sahib Singh Verma, who in trying to elaborate on his close ties with the people of Nepal  said - both my cook and watchman are from Nepal. After the so-called Hrithik Roshan riots - the actor was quoted as saying - how can I say anything abusive about Nepalis ? I was brought up by a Nepali Nanny. Anecdotes of such insensitive gaffes by Indians abound – which are unpardonable and not funny even in retrospect.

I have a special affinity for Nepal having lived there for some years during its most tumultuous period between the late 90s and early 200s – that saw Maoists insurgency at its peak, the Royal Massacre, IC-814 hijacking and the anti-India riots.  There is a long-standing joke among expatriates  in Nepal – “You cry twice. Once when you arrive in Kathmandu and next  only when you are leaving’’ – in between you spend, what could probably be, some of the best years of your life. So, when we moved back to India – we carried with us precious memories and left behind many good friends – who have graciously made us a part of their extended family.  Thanks to Social Media –  a virtual cosy club has emerged with an eclectic band of members - ranging from corporate executives, business honchos, bankers ,  diplomats, journalists  and quite a few embassy officials (from the ‘’other side’’ as they were discreetly referred to) who later went onto occupy very senior positions in their ‘’parent’’ services back home. Then there is always the common watering hole in Delhi – the IIC Bar – where one regularly runs into visiting Nepali politicians and journalists.

Here I must hasten to add – before I’m branded as an honorary member of the “Kathmandu Elite’’ – my experience and network wasn’t limited to the “Valley’’ alone.  Unlike – most Indians who seldom venture beyond Pokhara and Dhulikhel  - as a friend who later rose to the highest office in Delhi’s CGO Complex  off Lodi Road used to joke – being an itinerant  salesman I had to cover (sometimes on foot)  regions from distant Baglung in the West, remote Palpa in the middle  to Dhankuta in the  East. - My factory was plonk in the heart of Terai – in the Maoists infested belt of Makwanpur District bordering Chitwan.  So – though I don’t claim to be a ‘Nepal expert’ – my connections with the erstwhile “Himalayan Kingdom’’ still run quite deep.

My first lesson upon landing in Kathmandu came from a peer in a multi-national company. “Nepalis love everything Indian except Indians’’, he told me. At the ground level I saw that in my business itself. Our company products that poured across the border from India sold at a premium. Whereas, same brands manufactured in Nepal - with identical formulation and packaging - by subsidiaries of Indian companies were not preferred. (We were able to overcome this marketing challenge over a period – but that’s a different story.) As one drives into town from the Kathmandu  airport – it is impossible to miss the grand Birendra International Convention Centre (now turned into a make-shift Constitutional Assembly House)  – “gifted to the People of Nepal’’ – by their northern neighbours (China).  Adding to the chaotic traffic are LPG operated eco-friendly mini public transport vehicles – another visible example of Chinese generosity. The Nepalis are football fanatics.  The Earth-quake resistant Kathmandu Stadium which China helped build originally for the SAARC games but now used mostly for Soccer – still stands firm even after many adjoining structures were damaged by the recent quakes. Intelligent interventions, that helps China get huge PR bang for its yuans. In contrast, one would be hard put to find any prominent landmark of Indian make – though I am sure India outspends China by many times over in Nepal by way of aid and financial assistance.

Raising this with the Indian establishment would always elicit a defensive response - such as ''do you know every 2 Rupees out of 3 in Nepal come from India ?" and rattle out statistics about how much is doled out by way of Gorkha pension alone. Therein lies the rub of big-brotherly arrogance (and, a sense of entitlement). Also there is the mandatory reference to the famous East-West between Kankarbhitta in the East to Banbasa (Uttarkhand) in the West - undoubtedly an excellent road. Ask the Nepali - who'd tell you how India exercised its veto power to keep out all foreign bidders (including China) - on the plea of the strategic significance of the road so close to the
border - and then took years to complete job using out-dated construction practices of Indian CPWD contractors. The underlying sub-text being the Chinese would have done a faster and better - it was a deliberate attempt to delay the project as India doesn't really care for Nepal's development.

I once asked an Indian Ambassador - why are the Nepalese so anti-Indians when most of their leaders have studied and even lived in India for long periods. He chuckled at my naiveté and said - ''You know all the Afghans who went to study in Soviet Russia came back as anti-Russian''. That notwithstanding still there's a queue at the Indian Embassy to secure admission in Indian colleges. Many candidates are taken at the recommendation of politicians - as favour (while there are also rumours about ''selling'' of seats by junior embassy staff). But, that doesn't help soften either the politicians or the students towards India - after their return from India.

The general attitude of Nepali-s is - whatever India does for us is in their own interest ( a small price for securing its borders) and is our birth-right. This was manifest during the recent Earthquake Relief Mission. But, what China and other countries do - is ''without strings attached'' and, therefore, deserves of recognition and reciprocation in kind.

Indian diplomats are the most sought after set for politicians in Kathmandu. The ''Minister'' of the Consular Section is an all season favourite, especially so before elections - for reasons not difficult to understand. It is said, Nepal is - perhaps - the only country where the Indian Ambassador can feel like the US Ambassador in a 3rd world country. But, how much clout they actually wield is matter of debate.

One Ambassador - who had served in neighbouring SAARC countries told me - it's most difficult to operate in Nepal because there is no clear and consistent (and, often, not coherent)  policy towards Nepal. Too many interest groups try to influence India's position in Nepal. Apart from politicians (of them the strongest lobby is, obviously from Bihar and UP) - within the government itself 4 channels operate simultaneously - namely MEA, MHA (IB) and PMO (read R&AW) and Army (Military Intelligence - not necessarily on the same wavelength. But, the most meddlesome he thought was a group - which he called the ''Feudacracy''. These were the so called ''Royals'' from India - who had strong links in Nepal through marriage ties. Therefore, one Station Head of R&AW - with an earthy sense of humour would often quip - ''We, of course, always act in India's best interest''. But, does India know what are its interests ?''.

Till now - if one asked a Nepali friend - which was the biggest flashpoint - in the history of Indo-Nepal relationship - most would say the 1989-90 blockade - the trigger for which they believe was the alleged incident of the then Indian PM's Christian Wife (Italian) refused entry into the Pashupatinath temple. Now, there will be a new ''blockade'' to talk about for years to come - unintentionally wiping out not just the memories of the Congress era but also the goodwill generated by Narendra Modi's  - "Nepal ka Dard, Hamara Dard'' - visit.