Indo-Nepal: How to lose friends and influence
Hubris and lack of foresight are to blame for the estranged relationship between India and Nepal
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Delhi and Kathmandu: There is visible relief in India’s foreign policy establishment after the former guerilla leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or ‘Prachanda’ (the fearsome), was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Nepal in place of the Machiavellian K. P. Sharma Oli. The Indian government, which was at its wits’ end regarding how to deal with Oli and his grand attempts to put Nepal’s traditional relationship with India under stress by stoking faux nationalism and forging closer ties with China, may be sensing an opportunity to recover lost ground, but should they really be hopeful?
Prachanda was the original Nepalese hothead who was incensed at the iniquitous and unjust nature of the Indo-Nepal treaty of 1950. He wanted the treaty to be scrapped and even declaimed that India was conspiring to get him killed. Since those days he may have mellowed down, but the ground realities that stoked his ire towards India have in fact sharpened over the past few years. Worse, China, which had not showed its hand in Nepal’s affairs until recently, has become far more active in Kathmandu, and does not shy from openly cavorting with Nepalese leadership of all shades. For instance, in May this year, it seemed that Oli’s government was on its way out. The Nepali Congress and Prachanda’s Communist party were ready to get out of Oli’s coalition, but the Chinese ambassador stepped in and stopped the fall of the government. Prachanda reportedly told some people that the Chinese diplomat met him and insisted on the unity of communist parties, and that meant not bringing down Oli’s government. At the time the Oli government survived being voted out, a senior member of India’s strategic community angrily told this writer, “Never in recent history has China saved a government in Nepal in this manner. It clearly shows erosion in India’s influence. China is quietly replacing us and we cannot do much.” According to him, the Chinese are helping build Lumbini’s infrastructure by building airport and doing other works. “Even our Buddhist legacy is not safe,” he said.
This time around Prachanda may have received a nod from allies like the Nepalese Congress and the Madhesis, with whom his party had to sign an agreement. He also assured the Chinese that he would abide by all the agreements that Oli had signed with them during his controversial trip to Beijing. Oli’s May trip was clearly meant to reduce Nepal’s dependence on India by increasing trade and transportation links with China. Oli expressed his desire to have Nepal’s economy integrated with that of China. As any clear-eyed observer would let you know, this is easier said than done, and Oli’s aggressive assertion was meant to tell India that it cannot take Nepal for granted. Despite close social, historic and economic ties between the two countries, if Oli could say all this and still receive ringing endorsement from other leaders, it suggests that there has been a tectonic shift in diplomatic ties between the two countries. Nepal, in some ways, is slowly outgrowing India’s influence and New Delhi, seemingly, has stopped investing its resources in this relationship.
The days when a joint secretary of India’s foreign ministry would decide who would lead Nepal have become a thing of the past. Are we happy for it? No, perhaps, but Indians show a weariness in this relationship that does not bode well for both countries. This disinterest and lethargy is manifesting itself at different levels. The number of tourists has gone down significantly. Worse, their quality has plummeted, and even the presence of casinos with titillating cabaret dances thrown in does not hold enough attraction for many Indians to fly down to Kathmandu.Things were not supposed to have gone like this when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal as part of his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. He gave a stirring speech in the Nepal assembly and he would have won the votes of the people of Nepal if there was a Presidential election. The Nepalese were found pining for such an articulate and well-meaning leader. At that time, as a goodwill gesture he had prayed at the Pashupatinath temple and donated 2500 kg of white sandalwood, worth Rs 3 crores to the temple. Much of this goodwill evaporated thereafter. During his second trip he demanded permission to address a public meeting in Janakpur, which was denied by the Nepalese government. Then there was the monstrous earthquake in April 2015, which killed 8,000 people and destroyed large swathes of rural Nepal. India mismanaged the relief effort and was castigated for being boorish and overbearing. Indian journalists and their obsession with what their government – especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi – was doing for the distressed Nepalese earned the ire of the Nepalese government and people. Though India did a lot to providing succour to the earthquake victims, it was all forgotten.
However, the biggest setback to India’s cause, and one that gave legitimacy to Nepalese demagogues like Oli as they whipped up divisive nationalism and also reached out to the Chinese, was India’s public criticism of the new Nepalese constitution. Indian diplomats wanted changes made to the constitution just a few days before it was to be promulgated, since in their reckoning it did not give enough representation to the Madhesis, or the people of the plains. Quietly, the Nepalese were also told that the government in New Delhi was unhappy with the Himalayan state declaring itself as ‘secular state’. Though the mandarins in South Block denied meddling in the kingdom’s affairs, what followed was truly disastrous for Nepal as well as for its ties with its burly neighbor. A blockade was imposed by the Madhesis that prevented goods and fuel-laden trucks from reaching Nepal.
The government of Nepal claimed that India was behind this blockade, and, in fact, complained to the United Nations that a landlocked country was being cut off from the rest of the world. It was really embarrassing for many Indians when the Nepalese claimed that their suffering during the earthquake was far less than what they had to go through during the blockade. Fuel and medicine prices skyrocketed. It was at this juncture that the Chinese showed the lackadaisical Indians the extent of their technical prowess by supplying fuel to the Nepalese through the harsh terrain of Tibet. The Chinese also announced that it was only a matter of time before they brought their fancy Qinghai-Tibet train to the Nepalese border at Rasuwa Gadi Kerung. Last month, the Chinese used this long distance train to bring in 86 containers carrying essential supplies ,that later traveled by road to Kathmandu. Since the Kerung route has been opened there has been an explosion in the increase in trade between the two countries. In many ways, the locus of Nepal’s business is shifting, and this should be a cause for concern for the smug mandarins in Delhi, as presently we do not have a diplomatic strategy which allows us to work together with the Chinese. Our exclusionary foreign policy mandates that we do not ride together with the Chinese in these parts.
The Indian government is hopeful that it will be able to work with its old ally the Nepalese Congress to restore some semblance of order to its policy towards Nepal. Highly placed sources do not buy this theory, and claim that senior leaders of the Nepalese Congress, too, are not averse to being wooed by the Chinese, who are quite liberal with their pursestrings. The Indians used to be the same way as well, but have become quite stingy in recent years. Officially, India gives ` 300 crores to Nepa as an annual grant, but this pales in comparison to what the Chinese are prepared to offer. Chinese aggression has taken a lot of Indians by surprise and many attribute it to the thoughtless policy position that India has taken on South China Sea, in response to which China is displaying misplaced belligerence in many theatres where both countries interface. It will be a pity if Nepal becomes the new bone of contention between the two Asian giants.