Recent weeks have witnessed the unfolding of yet another episode of political instability in India’s northeastern neighbour, Nepal. After Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s sudden decision last month to recommend the dissolution of the Parliament, a large faction of the governing Nepal Communist Party, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, from the party’s primary membership.
While Nepal’s Supreme Court is yet to deliver its verdict on the validity of Oli’s move, the country is gripped by political uncertainty yet again. Earlier, the faction led by Dahal, who goes by Prachanda, had removed Oli from the position of NCP chairman, setting the tone for rival claims to the legitimate leadership of the NCP. In essence, Oli’s expulsion from the Prachanda-controlled segment of the NCP implies that the political head of the country has been deprived of a significant part of his popular legitimacy.
Given the last few years of uncertainty in India-Nepal ties, India’s response calls for a delicate handling of the different bilateral and regional factors at play, as well as a recalibration of its diplomatic action, or even inaction. Moreover, the implications of China’s increasingly interventionist presence in Nepal’s politics would also call for a reappraisal by internal and external stakeholders in the fledgling constitutional democracy of Nepal.
While the last decade saw growing Chinese interest in Nepal’s economy and geostrategic location, as well as enlisting its support for its regional ambitions of dominance, it was around 2018 that the imprints of Chinese meddling in Nepali politics were clear. In fact, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu had played a significant role in the merger of Nepal’s two distinct communist parties: the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) led by Prachanda and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) led by Oli. Their merger into a single entity, the NCP, was preceded by the victory of the alliance in the 2017 election.
Subsequently, China wielded considerable sway over the NCP government. Oli in particular is known for his pro-China tilt. While disagreements and power tussles regularly surfaced between the two factions of the NCP, China’s ambassador Hou Yanqi mediated to ensure the continuity of the combined front in power. A section of the Nepali media even asked whether Nepali politics.
Even though the current split is a setback to China’s plans, the Chinese government is exploring options to regain its political leverage in Kathmandu. By the end of last month, a led by Guo Yezhou, vice-president of the Chinese Communist Party’s international division, went to Nepal and held talks with all the key political actors, including President Bidya Bhandari, Prachanda, and NCP leader Madhav Kumar Nepal. The motive, obviously, was to secure Chinese interests amid the political rivalries that precipitated the current crisis.
China had as the largest investor in the Nepali market after the economic blockade of 2015. With this and other irritants in India-Nepal relations in the last decade, China’s influence over the NCP should also be seen as an instrument for China to pursue its geopolitical goals in south Asia.
China’s growing clout in Nepal has also coincided with new challenges in India’s ties with its Himalayan neighbour. Last year, Oli’s government took the that showed the Indian territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as belonging to Nepal. This clearly dubious and historically weak claim was either instigated by the Chinese foreign office or was a party of the government’s effort to create a new support base among Nepali voters.
Since then, the visits of high officials from India, including the foreign secretary and the army chief, have eased the tension arising out of such claims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warm response to his was also seen as a sign of normalisation that went beyond mere gestures. The mechanism of border talks has been put in place and bilateral trade and energy parleys are also getting back on track. Moreover, India might be relieved to note that in a departure from past Nepali heads, Oli could find no reason to blame India for the present crisis in Kathmandu.
In its initial response to the crisis, India tread a careful line, treating the crisis as Nepal’s “internal matter”, and hence officially stated a non-interventionist position. SD Muni, a former special envoy, in the light of the past eight months neutralising some of the negativities in India-Nepal ties and India achieving some of its immediate tactical goals.
However, Muni also cautioned India’s foreign office of flirting with forces close to the erstwhile monarchy. Testing the waters for new alignments might be a realistic impulse for a regional power like India, but this might fritter away the gains and opportunities that the Nepal crisis brought for India vis-à-vis China. With uncertainty over the restoration of the Parliament or the fresh election still hovering over Nepal’s politics, India’s interests are served well by sticking to a diplomatic non-interventionist line and improving what Muni called its “popular profile” in Nepal. As a long-term approach, this sounds valid in two important ways.
First, India needs to go by a careful cost-benefit analysis of the Chinese diplomatic entrenchment in controlling or even changing regimes in Nepal. Drifting into that competition turf of influence-peddling with China might demand heavy costs, but the gains are neither certain nor undivided. Moreover, by following the same script, India might squander the opportunity to gain from the current blowback against China’s attempts at “micromanaging” Nepal’s politics. There is always a possibility that such clear interventions may, at some point, invite backlash.
Second, despite spells of anti-India sentiment among some sections of Nepal’s political elite, the presence of close cultural and historical ties, as well as the unique presence of an open border that sees free movement of citizens of both countries, makes the case for making Nepal a strong diplomatic investment for India. Contrary to popular perception, the open border isn’t a product of the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 but comes from tradition and has acquired a conventional legitimacy. With lakhs of Nepalis crossing the border for livelihood and education, far more in the violent years of Maoist insurgency, India’s advocacy for a “people-driven” polity in Nepal could play a role in building popular capital.
In addition to looking for opportunities to seek influence in what geopolitically is positioned as India’s buffer state, the cultivation of people-centric leverage in a country with such ties could, in many ways, stand New Delhi’s Nepal policy in good stead.
In his 2017 work How India Sees the World, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who served as India’s ambassador to Nepal from 2002 to 2004, offered a prescient assessment of the future course of India’s engagement with Nepal.
He wrote: “Driven by anxiety over our declining influence, the temptation to intervene in Nepal’s domestic politics and label its political leaders as our friends or enemies has always proved to be counterproductive. Such intervention creates popular resentment and can turn friends into enemies. It is far better to advocate policies rather than persons. If India is seen as avoiding playing favourites and engaging with the widest possible political spectrum in Nepal, it has a better chance of influencing developments there.”
The significance of this line of diplomatic prescription has acquired immediate relevance in the wake of the latest crisis confronting Nepal. While the South Block weighs the next line of engagement, or even disengagement, the flux of events shouldn’t make India lose sight of building long-term diplomatic capital in a people-centric political order in Nepal.
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