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India Needs To Urgently Counter China’s Growing Influence In Nepal

Nepal and Chinese flags (Lintao Zhang/Pool/GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • India has to work doubly hard not only to cement government-to-government ties, but also put people-to-people ties with Nepal on a firm footing.

Nepal’s Premier, Sher Bahadur Deuba, is arriving on a four-day visit to India from Wednesday. This will be Deuba’s first foreign visit after taking over as Prime Minister (for the fourth time) in June this year, a fact that New Delhi is tom-tomming as proof of the primacy Kathmandu accords to India. India will announce another tranche of projects and goodies to Nepal during the visit, and both sides will issue positive statements that would promise to strengthen India-Nepal ties.

But India needs to work much beyond the official statements, agreements, aid and government-to-government ties. Because as things stand now, China has gained the upper hand (over India) in Nepal, not only at the official level, but also among the people of the Himalayan country. China enjoys much more positive image among the Nepalese than India.

A lot of it is India’s fault. India considers Nepal as part of its ‘sphere of influence’ and has, more often than not, acted in a big-brotherly fashion towards Nepal. Nepal, and its citizens, naturally resent this. China has accentuated this resentment among the Nepalese by carrying out a vicious and covert smear campaign against India. The Indian establishment – politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats – need to understand and appreciate that Nepal is a sovereign country and wants to be treated on equal terms; Indian politicians and diplomats have to speak to their Nepalese counterparts, not speak down to them. The mindset still prevalent among many in the Indian establishment that Nepal is a small and weak neighbour, which can be dictated to, needs to change immediately.

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China has been working very silently on Nepal over the past one and half decades and has cultivated a very strong pro-Beijing constituency among its politicians, professionals, litterateurs, social activists, businessmen, journalists and even students. It generously funds studies on Chinese culture and hosts teams of media persons, students, scholars, professionals and many others visiting China frequently.

China, through the largely sympathetic and pro-Chinese sections of the Nepali media, has been able to paint a very positive picture of itself as a benign superpower interested in helping a small neighbour like Nepal. Beijing has been successful in conveying to the people and opinion-makers of Nepal that its only interests lie in helping Nepal develop economically and not in interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs.

India suffers from a severe disadvantage on this count vis-a-vis China. The economic blockade in Nepal from September 2015 to February 2016 following the Madhesi agitation in that country (Madhesis are people of the Tarai region of Nepal who have close ties with India) will continue to rankle the people of Nepal, who blame India for imposing the blockade that triggered a severe economic and humanitarian crisis there, for a long time to come. China scored huge brownie points by offering to supply petroleum products and other essentials to Nepal at that time of severe crisis. Nepal’s then Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, who is very close to Beijing, used the opportunity provided by the blockade to move the country close to China.

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The slow progress of many projects in Nepal funded by India is another sore point with the Nepalese, especially since the Chinese have largely been adhering to deadlines in completing the projects – infrastructure, power etc – that they are executing. China is poised to extend its rail network to Kathmandu, thus paving the way for seamless connectivity with Nepal and vastly increasing people-to-people ties between the two countries.

Nepal is also sore over floods in the Tarai region that has claimed nearly 150 lives this year and submerged large parts of the region (considered the rice bowl of Nepal) that Kathmandu says is caused by India’s unilateral construction of 15 embankments, some as close to 12 kilometres of the international border. India has also not provided compensation till now to the people of Nepal whose lands have been submerged by the Koshi Barrage. Another sore issue is the Laxmanpur barrage over the Rapti that causes floods in Nepal every year.

India also needs to start work on the Rs 5,724 crore Arun III hydroelectric project, the 900 MW Upper Karnali hydroelectric project and the 6700 MW Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project. All these will benefit both the countries, but are now bogged down by procedural and bureaucratic logjams. These need to be cleared by both the countries. Nepal also wants greater access to Indian electricity (New Delhi’s decision to step up power supply to Kathmandu Valley, which was notorious for its chronic power shortages, has now created a fair bit of goodwill in Nepal), wants India to set up its promised energy bank for Nepal and wants exchange of Indian currency notes (held by people in Nepal) that were demonetised last year. These requests should not be difficult to concede on India’s part.

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Nepalese are also resentful of what they see is blatant Indian interference in their country’s Constitution amendment process. Nepalese feel that India has been leaning hard on successive governments in that country to amend the Constitution promulgated in 2015 to accommodate demands of the Madhesis. There is a clear social division in Nepal among the Madhesis (who share close cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic ties with people of western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh) and people in the hills, and the latter feel that India favours the former and acts to secure their (the Madhesis’) interests. India must dispel this notion.

India also has to counter China’s covert support to various anti-India groups in Nepal, especially fringe ones asking for 'Greater Nepal' re-integration of all territories (including Kumaon and Garhwal in Uttarakhand, large parts of Himachal Pradesh and parts of Kashmir) that Nepal had to cede to the British in the 1816 Treaty Of Sugauli – and ones calling for abrogation of various Indo-Nepal treaties.

India, thus, has to work doubly hard not only to cement government-to-government ties, but also put people-to-people ties on a firm footing. Nepal and India have a lot in common in terms of culture, religion, traditions, psyche and civilisational values. The people of Nepal, be they of the hills or the Madhesis, have no such affiliations with the Chinese, especially the Han Chinese who rule over that country. India has to leverage the commonalities between people of the two countries and facilitate close people-to-people ties with Nepal.

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And simultaneously, India has to aggressively counter the growing Chinese influence in Nepal. India has to match, and beat, China at its dirty and covert games. It also has to reach out to Oli and wean him, and leaders of his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), away from Beijing. India, perhaps, cannot match China’s deep pockets and pour in that much of aid to Nepal. But it can more than make that up by some very deft diplomatic moves, and by projecting itself as a true and all-weather friend and ally of Nepal.

To summarise then, here are a few things that New Delhi ought to do to win back the confidence of Kathmandu:

-Review all Indo-Nepal treaties that the Nepalese feel are skewed in favour of India and amend them to Nepal’s satisfaction.

-Unilaterally offer a firm written assurance to Nepal that supplies to Nepal from India will not be disrupted even in the case of any agitation in the Tarai region.

-Step up engagements with the politicians, bureaucrats, media persons, professionals, social activists, think-tanks and NGOs of Nepal.

-Build on cultural, religious and other ties that the two countries share.

-Be more generous in aid to Nepal.

-Expedite work on joint infrastructure, power and other projects.

-Win over Oli and other pro-Beijing politicians in Nepal.

-Treat Nepal as an equal, sovereign nation.

-Show sensitiveness to Nepal’s complaints and concerns (like floods in the Tarai caused by embankments built by India) and set up mechanisms to address them promptly.

-Encourage Indian businesses to invest in Nepal.

-Tweak the ‘Act East’ policy to include Nepal also in its ambit.

-Stop overt interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.

These measures should not be difficult to undertake, and it is absolutely imperative that India undertakes them to foil China’s determined bid to bring Nepal into its sphere of influence. A Nepal under China’s overwhelming influence would be very bad news for India.

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