What India should remember is Nepal is a sovereign country and has to be accorded due respect and importance.
Nepal’s new Prime Minister Khagda Prasad Sharma Oli, who assumed office for the second time in mid-February, is on a very strong wicket this time. Having won the mandatory motion of confidence by a three-fourth majority in the new House of Representatives after taking over as Prime Minister, Oli is sure-footed and confident this time, unlike the last when he headed an unstable coalition and was voted out after 10 months in office. In fact, Oli’s is the first stable government in Nepal after 60 long years – the last was B P Koirala-led Nepali Congress government that won the elections decisively in 1959. Since then, Nepal has seen 40 governments in 60 years.
That makes it easy for India to deal with Oli, who does not have to be on guard constantly and sniff out political conspiracies – real or imagined – to unseat him. New Delhi’s equations with Oli hit a low during the Nepal blockade from September 2015 to February 2016 that triggered a crippling shortage of all goods in Nepal and a humanitarian crisis. Oli had accused India of imposing the blockade by choking transit points along the Indo-Nepalese border, but India denied the charge.
However, the impression that India encouraged the blockade stuck because New Delhi had at that point in time demanded vital changes to Nepal’s new draft Constitution that was perceived to have marginalised the Madhesis, inhabitants of the Terai region of Nepal along the Indo-Nepalese border who have close familial ties with people of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh across the border.
Oli became Prime Minister in October 2015 following the split in August that year within the erstwhile Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – its present avatar is the Communist Party Of Nepal (Maoist Centre), or CPN(MC), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’.
The split occurred due to differences between Dahal and the party’s ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. Oli was not really seen as an adversary by New Delhi, but he took a strident anti-Indian stand during the blockade and reached out to China to counter the blockade. As a result, a few trade and transit agreements were signed between Nepal and China, and Beijing got a wonderful opportunity to increase its footprints in the Himalayan kingdom.
Though the blockade ended in February 2016, Oli had become a vocal critic of India by then and had firmly moved into China’s orbit. Later that year, when the fragile coalition between him and Prachanda collapsed due to Oli not honouring a power-sharing deal with Prachanda, leading to Oli being voted out of office, Oli blamed India for toppling his government. Oli alleged that India brokered a deal between Prachanda and the Nepali Congress (NC) to form an alliance and oust him from power. Prachanda became the prime minister in August 2016, and started mending broken ties with India. Under the power-sharing deal with the NC, he stepped down after 10 months in early June 2017 and NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba became the prime minister for the next nine months. Indo-Nepalese ties were further strengthened during Deuba’s tenure.
However, China pulled off a spectacular coup in early October by brokering an electoral alliance between Oli’s Communist Party Of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), or CPN(UML), and Prachanda’s CPN(MC). The alliance came a shocker for India, especially since the CPN(MC) was still part of the Deuba-led government in Nepal. The alliance swept the country’s federal and provincial polls late last year and Oli, being the head of the larger alliance partner, has become the Prime Minister. With the alliance enjoying the firm backing of China, which has already entrenched itself very firmly in Nepal, there is no possibility of the alliance tottering anytime in the foreseeable future.
It will be in New Delhi’s interests to accept this hard reality and start moving from here. Oli, it must be understood, had quite a good equation with New Delhi before he was pushed into China’s embrace by the blockade. He also cannot ignore the hard reality that no matter how much he tries to open trade and transit routes with China across the high mountain passes leading to the forbidding Tibetan plateau, the lion’s share of all goods will continue to flow into Nepal through India. India also offers the shortest route to ports for export of goods from Nepal. There are very strong cultural, ethnic and religious overlaps between the two countries that just cannot be wished away. The Madhesis, who form about 30 per cent of Nepal’s population, have close ethnic links with Indians across the border. A large number of people from Nepal work in India and vice versa. These are the realities that Oli has to take into account while running the country.
India has already reached out very positively to Oli and the latter has reciprocated very warmly. Immediately after the elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Oli and invited him to visit India. Modi called him again in January and a series of high-level contacts between the two countries put relations with Oli on an even keel. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a very successful visit to Kathmandu in early February. Oli also wrote to Modi on the eve of India’s Republic Day celebrations this year seeking closer ties with India. Modi is slated to visit Nepal later this year and Oli will also, hopes New Delhi, make India his first port of call.
India has to hasten the pace of the various projects – hydro-power, roads and bridges – it is committed to in Nepal. The slow pace of progress of these projects has been a sore point in Nepal, especially since China has been very swiftly executing projects in Nepal. India has a lot of ground to cover in Nepal and regaining the trust and confidence of the ruling communists as well as the people of Nepal will be a tough, but not an impossible, task. This delicate task of rebuilding the damaged ties between the two countries should not be left to ham-fisted diplomats, who often display an overbearing attitude towards our smaller neighbours.
India’s foreign policy establishment and the mandarins in Raisina Hills’ South Block have to realise that New Delhi cannot afford to act like the gorilla in South Asia. A series of missteps has made India look like the neighbourhood bully. India should, instead, cultivate the image of a gentle and caring big brother. It is in India’s interests to wean Nepal away from China’s pernicious influence. India has to convince Nepal of the dangers involved in getting too close to China – the experience of Myanmar and Sri Lanka, as well as some African countries, who fell into China’s lap and then into a debt trap schemingly laid out by Beijing ought to come in handy in this regard.
Apart from bold and positive initiatives at the political and diplomatic levels, India also has to project its soft power on Nepal and its civil society. It has to build a strong constituency within Nepal – among its youth, its civil society members, its professionals, writers, academics, litterateurs and artistes, its politicians and its bureaucrats – that will be favourably disposed towards India. China has done this very successfully in Nepal and other countries in our neighbourhood. New Delhi, at the same time, also has to understand that it cannot dictate terms to Kathmandu. Nepal is a sovereign country and has to be accorded due respect and importance. Nepal has to deal with the geo-political reality of China’s existence to its north and, thus, its compulsions in continuing its ties with China as well.
India has to match China’s influence over Nepal by softly leveraging the close cultural, ethnic, religious and political affinities between the two countries, and not by asking Nepal to choose between the two countries. All this takes a lot of hard work, delicate and subtle tactics and patience, qualities which have been sadly lacking in our dealings with some of our neighbours.