Dec 1, 2015

by Gouri Chatterjee

If they are laughing at you, then it's all over.

And Nepal is.

Cracking jokes at India's — particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi's — expense, that is. Stand-up comedian Manoj Gajurel used to have his audience doubling up with his "positive" impersonations of Modi, the Indian prime minister who made Kathmandu his first port-of-call in his soon-to-be overbooked foreign itinerary and the only country he has visited twice in his first 18 months. Last month Gajurel changed his act. He has been, he says, going to their hallowed Pashupatinath Temple, where Modi had offered prayers last August, and performing the kshama puja on behalf of Modi for "putting Nepal through such hard times".

That Modi is doing nothing to ease Nepal's troubles is undeniable. It's over two months now since Nepal passed the new Constitution that New Delhi so disliked that it tried to scuttle it on the very eve of its passage, and showed no grace in bowing to the inevitable when faced with a fait accompli. Since then things have only gone from bad to worse. The India-Nepal border is practically closed for goods and Nepal is starving for fuel, medicines and other essential items, a crisis that will snowball into a humanitarian catastrophe now that winter is nigh; incipient border clashes are breaking out, violence outbursts are taking lives in the border areas; the UN has been witness to first-ever skirmishes between the two countries initiated by New Delhi; while at home the Modi government is maintaining a hands off policy, it's foreign ministry officials practically saying, they didn't listen to us, now it's their funeral, let them deal with it.

The big mystery still remains is why. Why is the NDA government being so obdurate? Why is Modi hellbent on doing a Rajiv Gandhi in Nepal? In 1989-90, differences over the renewal of trade and transit treaties and Kathmandu's procurement of anti-aircraft guns from China had led India to impose a 15-month embargo on goods coming to Nepal. Rajiv, with his misadventures in Nepal and Sri Lanka, can hardly be a role model for the man who could barely bring himself to mention even Jawaharlal Nehru's name, until forced to do so with gritted teeth only to save the GST Bill.

What does India gain by pushing Nepal into the arms of an eagerly waiting China? A much stronger, more emboldened and far more ambitious China than in Rajiv's days? China's offer to send oil to Nepal is only the thin end of the wedge. Already more entry points have been opened up between the two countries, soon, going by China's track record, more roads will be built, swifter means of communication will be in place, Nepal will slide away from India's ambit of influence.

True, geography favours India. Transit is easier, cheaper and well established between these two countries. The reason why there is a richer history between these two neighbours, closer cultural and social ties. That may also be why India is happily playing this cat and mouse game. They are waiting for Nepal to be humbled, to surrender. Probably keeping fingers crossed too that the current, unyielding KP Oli government will fall under its own contradictions and India will be able to dictate terms again.

And the biggest test may have just begun.

Indian television channels have been blocked in Nepal since Sunday. Whether the government has strong-armed the cable operators or the cable operators have become ultra-patriotic and stopped them by popular demand, as Kathmandu claims, is of course the big question. Whatever the answer, the unfolding saga is bound to be quite nail-biting. Will the people of Nepal, already suffering from shortages of cooking medium and heating fuel and life-saving medicine, be ready to do without their daily soaps, their daily fixes of saas-bahu serials too? If yes, then India has reason to worry. The tide will have turned, Nepal's fury against India will become inflexible, implacable. The jokes about Modi will get louder and more raucous, and Beijing will have the last laugh.

Maybe that is when Modi will feel impelled to hold out the olive branch to the only other Hindu-majority country in the world. As he did to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan. But brinkmanship can hardly be the best way to run a government. Maybe it's time someone gifted him a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. No one likes bullies.