Improving India-Nepal relations chiefly rests with New Delhi, primarily because of the follies of the past, and also because unlike Nepal, it does not have an alternative.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal marks the inception of the new age in India-Nepal relations, rooted not in rhetoric of a special relationship, but in the realities of the changing times and the strategic concerns of the two countries.
Ever since the Indian side expressed its reservations about the Nepali constitution and voiced in favour of Madhesis, who had been agitating against provisions of the constitution – and the subsequent blockade that choked Nepal – the relations between the two countries had been on a downhill roll. It was the hardships the country went through during the blockade that cemented the anti-India sentiment in the popular Nepali psyche, the sentiment that the Nepali political class capitalised on greatly. Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, who was seen as India’s friend prior to the crisis, turned into one of India’s most vocal critics and the propagator of Nepali nationalism. India became the force the Nepali nationalism was woven around, much like how the Indian nationalism was woven against the British.
The blockade also moved Nepal closer to China, as the leadership sought an alternative there. Prime Minister Oli signed pacts with China facilitating transit. Oli would further fume over India when his government would fall in 2016. He would accuse India of brokering the deal between Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Nepali Congress.
The blockade could have been intended as a punitive measure for the failure of the Nepali state to implement a constitution that suited Madhesis – an ethnic group with deep ties with eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two of the most electorally significant Indian states, but it ended up backfiring as it did nothing but to push Nepal into the folds of China.
Even as Indians believed in restoring ties through 2016-17 with Prachanda and his successor Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Chinese were at their game. In a sheer shocker the alliance between Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (United-Marxist-Leninist) and Prachanda-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) was announced for the upcoming federal and provincial elections. China has since been understood to have brokered the alliance, which would go on to sweep the elections.
It was perhaps then the Indian establishment finally realised it had little room for any more follies. Modi personally called up Oli, Prachanda and Deuba. He congratulated Oli – the future prime minister, and invited him to India, who in turn invited Modi to Nepal. He also congratulated Prachanda on the alliance’s victory and also Deuba for the successful completion of the elections.
Oli would write to Modi on the Republic Day, congratulating the country and also expressing his eagerness to work with the Indian government. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was dispatched to Nepal on 1 February on a ‘goodwill visit’ in which she met Oli, who would be sworn in as the country’s prime minister barely two weeks later, and other Nepali leaders. Modi also congratulated Oli when he was sworn in. A week later on his birthday, Manjeev Singh Puri, the Indian envoy to Nepal, went to Oli’s residence with a bouquet to personally wish him a happy birthday.
This sincere approach on both the sides was a departure from their earlier hardliner stance. While Oli seemed to be quite appreciative of the Indian gestures, the Indians, as Prashant Jha writes, marked a departure from being ‘partisans’ to ‘conciliators’ in their approach. While they had certainly not rooted for Oli, they quickly realised that with the mandate he now had, Oli was there to stay and there was just one way to go about it – to engage with him reasonably. Oli, on his part, realised that while he may have sailed on anti-India rhetoric for the elections and the Chinese may pour investments in Nepal endlessly, it could not just replace India. This was based on hard realities. Even with the development of transit points with China and construction of railways connecting the two countries, the lion’s share of Nepal’s supplies still came from India. India still had the most viable sea-link for Nepal.
Oli made India his first foreign port-of-call. As opposed to previous trips that were often a week-long affair, this visit was a concise trip that meant business. It was reciprocated by Modi a month later. The two trips resulted in creation of a pragmatic understanding between the leadership of the two countries that while they may turn to rhetoric every now and then, they cannot run their countries on it. They have to run it on common grounds. Oli realises very well that one may get new friends, but not new neighbours, and India realises very well that it cannot afford to let Nepal slip into the Chinese orbit any more.
Oli is currently the strongest ruler in recent Nepali history – stronger than the king ever was – and has all organs of the state under his iron fist. He enjoys bonhomie with China, which too is under an unprecedented spell of power under Xi Jinping. This has to be inevitably taken note of in any deliberation regarding Nepal.
It should also be understood that even though Oli might seem to be prioritising India, Nepal is actively engaging with other countries in the region, most notably with Pakistan. The Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was the first foreign leader to visit Nepal after the formation of the government. Recently the Nepali army chief also visited Pakistan on the invitation of General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. This unusual Nepal-Pakistan engagement, along with Nepal-China bonhomie, is enough signal for India that even though the country understands that India is indispensible to Nepal’s cause, even that would not accord it the ‘special relationship’ it had long believed in. All avenues are now open for Nepal.
In reassessing its engagement with Nepal, India also needs to take into account its people-to-people relations, which are not what they once were. The Nepali youth does not swoon on Bollywood anymore. It is more into K-pop and Western films and shows. When it comes to work and education, India is the last resort. The United States, Australia, Japan, Korea, and a host of other countries are vastly preferred over India by anyone who has means to bypass India. Also, the ‘roti-beti ka rishta’ that the Indian side never ceases to mention is largely limited to plains of Nepal, while the power is always vested with the hills. Those in the hills rule Nepal. In taking up the Madhesi cause, India messed up with those wielding power in the hills and turned itself into an antagonist.
While all of this may prima facie present a gloomy picture, all is not lost. India can still regain its fading clout in the region. India has huge social, cultural, religious and geographical ties with Nepal, which China does not, and which it should use as its soft power to improve the people-to-people ties of the two nations. Also, it is of paramount importance for India to deliver on its promises. The slow pace of Indian projects in Nepal has long been an irritant.
Also, Indians should keep in mind that even though Oli may tilt towards China, Oli is wise enough to know what happens when a country shifts firmly into the Chinese orbit. He must be aware of the cases of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives, now firmly caught in Chinese debt-trap. Oli knows that India may be an irritant, but it is not an expansionist like China. India will not entrap Nepal, and it is because of this reason once the Nepali ‘emancipation’ is complete – once its leadership has assured its citizens that they are out of India’s hegemony, Nepal would eventually, in Jaideep Mazumdar’s words, return to the India, and when it comes, India should embrace it as an equal.
Therefore, the Indian side needs to carefully engage with Nepal, so as to carry forward the flow that has been made lately. It is now with the Indian side that the task of improving India-Nepal relations chiefly rests, primarily because of the follies of the past, and also because unlike Nepal, it does not simply has an alternative.