Delaying Indo-Nepal Talks Helped China. Who’ll Do Damage Control?

If India-Nepal ties are to be re-set, the onus lies with both sides to create a conducive environment for talks.

Published
Opinion
6 min read
Image of Nepal PM KP Oli, and India and Nepal’s flags, used for representational purposes.
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The most urgent challenge facing India in the neighbourhood is the deep and all-encompassing presence of China. Nowhere is the Chinese engagement more visible and tangible at present than in Nepal, a country India considered its traditional sphere of influence. Over the last few days, China has played a crucial role in maintaining the unity of the ruling party in Nepal, and has an overwhelmingly major say in the Himalayan nation’s domestic politics now.

Although India opted to support liberal and inclusive politics in Nepal, over the years, it has seen deteriorating bilateral ties with Kathmandu. 

The communist force in Nepal increasingly relies on anti-India sentiments to gain public support and remain in power, even when New Delhi is choosing to remain silent on the present political situation in Nepal.

PM Oli Is Unlikely To Have Made the ‘Ayodhya Comment’ By Mistake

Nepal PM KP Sharma Oli’s comment on Ayodhya on 13 July, has crossed all thresholds of his previous controversial statements against India. He said at a program in his official residence, that Lord Ram is a Nepalese, and Ayodhya is in Nepal.

Although Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 14 July issued a statement saying that “the remarks made by the prime minister are not linked to any political subject and have no intension at all to hurt the feeling and sentiment of anyone,” the damage had already been done, with India’s ruling party reacting strongly and rejecting the claim.

A shrewd politician like Oli obviously did not invoke the Ayodhya issue without a reason.

He knows that the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is high on the BJP agenda, and he is aware of its political significance. He and his coterie are hardcore anti-BJP, and any claim about Ayodhya being in Nepal would create some confusion at least.

Snapshot
  • Nepal PM KP Sharma Oli’s comment on Ayodhya on 13 July, has crossed all thresholds of his previous controversial statements against India.
  • He said at a program in his official residence, that Lord Ram is a Nepalese, and Ayodhya is in Nepal.
  • A shrewd politician like Oli obviously did not invoke the Ayodhya issue without a reason.
  • The age-old ‘special relationship’ between the two neighbours thus no longer holds ground at a political level, as the Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) is blaming India for attempting to dislodge his government in collusion with some of his own party leaders.

India-Nepal Ties No Longer Hold Ground At A Political Level

Secondly, Oli considers CM Yogi Adityanath as a diehard supporter of the monarchy, and he also knows that Gorakhnath Math was the first to raise the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. So he was targeting PM Modi, the BJP and CM Yogi, all three with an arrow. Oli has retreated this time because of widespread protests at home, but he will definitely find new issues to prick India with. The secular issue in Nepal, which in the local context means anti-Hindutva, is a key agenda for the EU and the US.

The age-old ‘special relationship’ between the two neighbours thus no longer holds ground at a political level, as the Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) is blaming India for attempting to dislodge his government in collusion with some of his own party leaders.

What is the kind of relationship that India envisioned with ‘New Nepal’? By mediating the 12-point agreement between the Maoist rebels and the seven-party alliance in New Delhi in 2005, India had successfully brought the former rebels into Nepal’s mainstream politics. The integration process that followed, supported by New Delhi, saw the Maoists emerge as the biggest player in Nepal, and it was hoped that the new power dynamics in Kathmandu would help sustain India’s interests. Alas, it was not to be so, as Maoist supremo Prachanda was seen trying to balance relations between India and China.

China’s Influence Over Nepal’s Politics

India then went on to support a new power balance in Nepal in which the traditional Nepali Congress party would be in alliance with the Maoists. The alliance came unstuck because after facing splits, Prachanda was forced to join hands with the former CPN-UML, and the new-look CPN secured a comfortable majority in the last elections. The polls were fought in the background of the devastating April 2015 earthquake, and the unwarranted unofficial blockade on Nepal by India in support of the Madhesi movement.

The agitation led by the people of the Terai region, bordering India's Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, was against discriminatory constitutional provisions, but it was seen as an India-sponsored movement in Nepal.

With Oli and Prachanda coming together, a coalition not to India’s liking, Indian influence subsided and gave rise to the coming of age of China in Nepal’s domestic affairs.

China, which earlier advised the Nepali politicians to maintain good relations with India, after 2015 emerged as a major player and gave open support to the CPN. This was to achieve the twin objectives of successfully executing the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) agreements with Nepal, and to have a stable government that was friendly towards Beijing.

Nepal’s Geo-Political Importance & US’s Concerns

The US, too, is deeply concerned with the developments in Nepal because of the geo-political importance of the Himalayan country. Nepal’s bilateral relations with the US dates back to 1947, the country Nepal established diplomatic ties with next to only the UK. Nepal joined the now-controversial MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) in 2010, when it was considered eligible for the US’s ‘Threshold Program’, considering the political, economic, and social situation of the country.

The MCC compact agreement worth USD 630 million was signed in September 2017, aimed at enhancing Nepal’s energy connectivity, and to minimise transportation cost (given the difficult geographical terrain in Nepal) for economic growth through the construction of 300 kms of electricity transmission lines and support for maintenance of another 300 km of roads within five years of the project’s tenure. The MCC has been pulled in to controversy in Nepal, as many in the country view it to be part of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and, as a result, see it as going against Nepal’s non-aligned position.

Besides, the MCC compact with Nepal, the first in the South Asian region, states that in case of dispute, the compact would prevail over the domestic laws –– and would require parliamentary ratification.

Senior members of the NCP are opposed to the compact, as it is being seen as a direct threat to Nepal’s commitment to BRI with China, and is  in violation of Article 51 (m) of Nepal’s Constitution that commits the country to a strong non-alignment principle. However, PM Oli is strongly committed to the importance and need to ratify the MCC.

Delay In India-Nepal Talks Has Made Nepal Sign Crucial Agreements With China

India’s relation with Nepal is one determined by close proximity, and a cultural and traditional relationship. However, the close relationship has given rise to complex problems, as the relationship exists at various levels. For New Delhi to determine a new Nepal policy would involve re-evaluation and re-assessment of its past policies which have yielded very little results for it.

But it would be prudent to move forward with the process that it has already been set in motion at least.

The delay in Indo-Nepal talks has already resulted in Nepal signing crucial agreements with China on trade, security and connectivity.

The EPG (Eminent Person Group) report, prepared by experts of both the countries, is a non-binding report, and is yet to be accepted by the Indian government. The hesitation to recognise it shows the apprehensions on the Indian side to reset bilateral ties.

Similarly, the upcoming meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting, scheduled for October 2020 at the foreign-minister level, must be held without reluctance. This mechanism, established in 1987, is supposed to be held alternatively in Nepal and India. The last meeting of the Commission was held in Kathmandu in August 2019, after a gap of two years.

If India & Nepal Are To Re-Set Bilateral Ties, Here’s What Needs To Happen

Although the Prachanda faction in the CPN, supported by former Prime Ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalanath Khanal, have demanded Oli’s resignation from both posts as PM and party chair, it is clear that the incumbent PM is holding on to power for some time.

It will be futile for India to wait for a change of guard in Kathmandu to start any meaningful dialogue, as the alternative has to emerge from the same political force, which would be forced to maintain equidistance between India and China.

Also, the former Maoist chief  Prachanda, seen as an alternative to Oli, does not enjoy India’s confidence –– as, while stepping down in 2009 as the then PM, he had said that it was at the behest of ‘foreign masters’ –– clearly implying India.

If the bilateral ties are to be re-set, the onus lies with both sides to create a conducive environment for talks, because no dialogue would push the relation further towards cold storage – a situation undesirable for both the neighbours. And as is evident to all, the vacuum is being filled by another power in Nepal.

(The author is a Nepali journalist, researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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