Opinion

Why this slide in Indo-Nepal ties?

PRATIM RANJAN BOSE | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 11, 2016

A member of the Nepalese Armed Police Force walks along the Shankaracharya Gate at the Nepalese-Indian border, as stones thrown by the protesters are scattered on the road during a general strike called by Madhesi protesters demonstrating against the new constitution in Birgunj, Nepal November 5, 2015. Nepal has faced an acute fuel crisis for more than a month since protesters in the lowland south, angered that a new constitution fails to reflect their interests, prevented supply trucks from entering from India. Many in Nepal see India's hand in the protests although it denies any role. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar   -  Reuters

India and China are backroom players in Nepal’s fractious coalition government. China holds the upper hand now

Sacking its envoy for maintaining too close a relationship with the foreign government is a serious charge.

Nepal did just that to its envoy in New Delhi, Deep Kumar Upadhyay, allegedly for colluding with India to topple the KP Oli government in Kathmandu. It also cancelled the scheduled visit of the Nepali president to the Indian capital at the eleventh hour.

This is surely not the kind of action you expect from a country that enjoys preferential treatment from India. India has supported all democratic movements in Nepal, and nearly 30 lakh Nepalis (some 10 per cent of Nepal’s population) are employed in India; this includes some 50,000-60,000 soldiers.

But nothing has stopped Kathmandu from treating India as a hostile country. And that raises questions about the intentions of Kathmandu. The future of India-Nepal relations has been seriously strained since September last year.

Not a juvenile act

Some political observers believe that taking this approach to India is only part of Oli’s attempt to survive the political power struggle within Nepal. The main culprit, they say, is the hung parliament in Kathmandu, and the fragile coalition between political adversaries such as Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Lenninist) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s or Prachanda’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists).

The Maoists are not on the same page as the CPN (UML). Along with the Nepali Congress (NC), they earlier attempted a new coalition with Indian support. Oli reacted to this plot. Even so, this does not fully explain why Oli or his party should burn bridges with India. What is exceptional about a political aspirant in Kathmandu seeking New Delhi’s blessings? Isn’t it true that Oli himself maintained close ties with New Delhi till early 2015, after which he allegedly switched his allegiance to the Chinese?

Is it a secret that Nepali Congress was once headquartered in Patna and has a long association with India? What is surprising about Prachanda (who no more enjoys Indian support) dumping the coalition plan with the Nepali Congress and running back to Oli, reportedly prodded by China?

The fact is that Nepal is a playground for two large powers — India and China — and politicians in Kathmandu seek to extract the most from both sides. There is nothing wrong with that per se..

But this still does not explain why Oli is going out of the way to pick a fight with India. A chronology of events makes it clear that there is a design behind this act.

Headwinds for India

India’s Nepal nightmare began in September, when Indian foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, went to Kathmandu. This was clearly a last-ditch attempt to prevent the late Sushil Koirala-led NC-UML government from promulgating the Constitution that was biased against the Madhesi in the plains and violated an agreement that was signed with mediation by India.

Jaishankar returned empty-handed. The Constitution was promulgated. Encouraged by sympathy from India, the Madhesis went for an economic blockade but failed to guide it to success. The agitation went on a bit too long for India’s comfort but failed to disturb Kathmandu. Nepal left it to black-marketers to meet the demand for essentials through the open border and shamed India before the world for allegedly blocking supplies to a landlocked country.

The Madhesi movement ended in a whimper on February 5. Some also linked it to alleged alarms raised by the Nepali Army to New Delhi about a possible revolt in the armed forces.

The events that followed were dramatic. Oli visited India soon after the end of the Madhesi stir but the two countries failed to issue a joint communiqué, indicating differences. Within weeks, he reached Beijing and signed a 10-point agreement on trade and transit including a Chinese proposal for mineral exploration in Nepal.

True, the trade and transit proposals will not be realised anytime soon. But Oli made a public display of according the highest priority to the Chinese and scrapping Indian proposals for road and airport building, in quick succession.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are out to secure public support. A delegation recently visited the Madhesi heartland of Janakpur in the plains of Nepal to soothe nerves.

The plot

It is to be seen how ultra nationalist Nepalese society reacts to Chinese interest in their natural resources and infrastructure sector. But Oli surely has a plot in mind.

By daring India, he is reportedly trying to earn the confidence of the upland population that controls Nepal’s politics. Maoists are reduced to paper tigers with Prachanda facing war crime charges. The party also lost its base in the plains in the last election.

The promulgation of the constitution made NC unpopular in the plains. As a split force, Madhesis cannot fill this void. Oli is trying to put the Congress on the backfoot by blaming them for colluding with India.

It’s a ploy to destroy the opposition and ensure a long tenure with the support of the upland population. But the moot question still remains: What prompts him to ignore the advantages of a power balance (between India and China), and take one side?

One argument is that Oli is taking advantage of India’s goodwill. He seems to believe that the five-month-long Madhesi blockade has cost India its bargaining position. Any stern action now will go against India.

Theoretically, India can always deny granting it preferential status, as agreed in a half-century-old pact. But, considering the Narendra Modi government’s emphasis on regional cooperation, it cannot easily exercise the option. Moreover, such actions may be resisted by States such as Bihar and UP where Madhesis have familial links.

But that’s not all. Generally speaking, western powers back India on regional issues (except Pakistan-Afghanistan) vis-à-vis China. Nepali politics, especially the ruling CPN (UML) that reportedly enjoys European links, cannot remain indifferent to the stand of western powers.

Does it mean that these powers are divided on Nepal issues, and Kathmandu is taking advantage of geo-political imbalance? Defence analysts say they are, courtesy the strong presence of Christian missionaries in the uplands.

Future uncertain

In all probability, India-Nepal ties will face an uncertain future for some time. That doesn’t mean India has lost the game. A Congress-Maoist-Madhesi coalition can upset Oli’s plans. Also, Oli has put too much at stake in trying to strengthen his anti-India image. And there is every possibility that he will end up giving India the opportunity to act.

One such example was the recent ‘talk’ that Kathmandu would declare the Indian ambassador in Nepal, Ranjit Rae, persona non grata. Kathmandu rubbished this as a rumour.

It may not be too long before New Delhi reacts to Kathmandu.

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Published on May 11, 2016
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