As Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli wrapped up his foreign visit to India (April 6-8) two months after assuming power in February, the two countries have put behind them a nearly three-year phase in bilateral ties marred by mutual recrimination, suspicion and distrust. In a media briefing after talks between Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, Indian Foreign Secretary explained it as a historic visit by the visiting PM during which some “game-changing” decisions were taken by the two countries. But more importantly, both India and Nepal have indicated a clear change in how they will henceforth look at each other. And in this, the China factor has played a role.
To understand the change, it is essential to look back briefly at what happened over the last three years since Oli became the PM for the first time in 2015. India had reportedly tried to stop Oli from becoming the PM three years ago but failed. Then the Oli government was toppled in 2016 and replaced by a coalition of Nepali Congress and Oli's present Maoist ally led by Pushpa Kumar Dahal Prachanda. Oli was convinced that India was behind his ouster. Such was the bad blood created that when Oli spearheaded the communist coalition between his own party—Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) and Communist Party Nepal (Maoist Centre)—back to power in general elections this year, Nepal was considered as a classic example, along with the Maldives, where the Modi government's “neighbourhood first” policy had badly floundered.
When Nepalese parties were busy framing their new Constitution under a parliamentary democracy since rejecting monarchy 12 years ago, India was weighing down on the Nepalese leaderships to address the concerns of Madhesis, people of Indian origin who live along the border with India, about adequate representation in the future provincial and national legislatures. India-Nepal relations took a turn for the worse. The Madhesis enforced an economic blockade for four months to press their demands because Oli saw India's hand behind the blockade. Without naming names, Oli had accused India of interfering in Nepal's politics. Oli played the India card during the run up to parliamentary election this year and got a commanding mandate. It is this mandate and the successful adoption of Nepal's constitution that made the difference. As Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale correctly described: “I think the circumstances in 2016 and today are different. The government of Nepal is a government which has been elected on the basis of a constitution that has been passed.”
Oli's pre-poll alliance with the Maoists was helped by China as India misread the political and public temper by supporting the Nepali Congress. The communist majority complicated things for India. It realised the flaw in its approach to Nepal and quickly mounted efforts to reach out to Oli who has always been seen as pro-China. Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Manjeev Singh Puri, gifted a birthday cake to Oli in February and another on the occasion of Holi on March 1. Modi congratulated Oli not once, but twice on the latter's election victory and rushed External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu to mend the fences even before Oli's government could be sworn in. India also loosened its purse strings and increased its financial assistance to Nepal for the financial year beginning in April this year by 73 per cent.
And when Oli visited India, New Delhi and Kathmandu announced a set of key physical connectivity initiatives including a rail link from the Indian border town of Buxar to Kathmandu and opened up its inland waterways to give land-locked Nepal access to the sea for commerce. India also agreed to expedite some of the other long-pending rail connectivity and power sector projects as delay in their implementation have been a major complaint of Nepal. China has already given Nepal access to its ports and has been discussing the construction of a rail link that would connect Kathmandu with Tibet. Besides, there is a move by China to supply Nepal petroleum products for which Nepal has so far been dependent solely on India.
During his stay in Delhi, Oli repeatedly talked about a trust-based relationship with India, an unmistakable allusion to the previous trust-deficit. He also talked about refashioning India-Nepal ties keeping in mind the reality of the 21st century. Manjeev Singh Puri also said that the relations “should be taken forward in a manner which is invigorated and which is in keeping with the needs of the time i.e. the 21st century.”
In the run up to the 2018 elections and after, Oli has more than once made it clear that Nepal's foreign policy would not be India-centric anymore and would look to diversify to other countries, more particularly, its northern neighbour China, while maintaining equidistance from New Delhi and Beijing—leveraging its relations with both the giants. By hosting Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as the first foreign leader to visit Kathmandu since the new Nepalese government took over, Oli was seen to have sent a veiled message to New Delhi about his desire to pursue an independent foreign policy.
However, Oli or any Nepalese leader for that matter knows the crucial role played by India in the Himalayan country's transition from monarchy to a multi-party democracy and how the armed underground Maoists were persuaded to accept the new political order, surrender their arms and come out from underground. The Nepalese political class knows the “special relationship” between the two countries with an open border—how lakhs of Nepalese nationals have for generations unfettered entry into India, study in India and take up jobs in India without any work permit. Nepal does not enjoy these facilities with China. So, it is for the people and leaders of Nepal to decide if they would like to have good relations with India or jeopardise them on a nationalist plank. It is for Nepal to decide whether it pays more to be closer to India or China.
What Oli's visit has done is provide India with an opportunity to rethink how to conduct its much-hyped “neighbourhood first” policy. In Nepal, Oli has repeatedly said that gone are the days when his country was dependent solely on India for its economic development. This is a far cry from the past when Nepalese leaders cutting across party lines used to drive home the point that Nepal's ties with India are a class apart because of geographical continuity and cultural affinities. For the ruling communist dispensation in Nepal today, an independent foreign policy has become synonymous with the ability to stand up to India under the garb of nationalism because that sells easily in domestic politics.
For India, there are a number of questions to be answered when it comes to dealing with its neighbours like Nepal. Should India stand aloof and watch Nepal shaping its own course of action and hope that Kathmandu does not rush to Beijing's embrace? The limitations of India's influence on the Nepalese political elite was evident when New Delhi failed to nudge Kathmandu to drop a constitutional amendment to address the concerns of Madhesis. India has no option but to respect the electoral mandate in Nepal and deal with the government of the day even if it is not New Delhi's first preference. It raises a much bigger question: should India pick and choose the party it deals with in its neighbourhood? There is a school of opinion in India that if Delhi plays neutral in the political drama played out in its neighbourhood, it may allow China to make deeper inroads with huge security implications for India. Then there are forces in India's neighbouring countries which by their own conduct have not helped India remain neutral.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.