KATHMANDU — There is now little doubt that India has lost strategic space to China in Nepal. Some reckon the era of “special relations” between India and Nepal is nearly over as China makes steady inroads. There has been a truly breathtaking rise in Chinese influence and a corresponding fall in Indian sway in this country of nearly 30 million. The main catalyst for the sea change? The 2015-16 India-inspired blockade of the India-Nepal border, imposed, in part, owing to India’s displeasure over the new constitution Nepal had just promulgated.
As if to rub salt into India’s wounds Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli last week hosted Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who in the process became the first foreign head of government to visit Nepal after Oli assumed office for the second time on February 15. In the words of one geopolitical commentator, Abbasi’s visit was ill-timed. With India-Pakistan ties at an all-time low, asks this commentator, “What other purpose will it [the Pakistan prime minister’s Nepal visit] serve save for antagonizing India?”
But that is not how most Nepalis see it. Oli knows that the more he tries to assert Nepal’s independent identity by distancing himself from India, the greater his popularity will be. Following the 2015-16 blockade. which brought great hardship to common people, the public pressure for closer ties with China has been steadily building, along with the demand that Nepal diversify its relations away from India, heretofore its predominant business partner. This is where Pakistan enters the picture.
By hosting his Pakistani counterpart, Oli — who crested the popularity wave as a valiant blockade-time prime minister — wanted to give a clear message that he doesn’t care what the Indians think of him. After all, his China tilt is wildly popular among his core constituencies. Moreover, the common perception is that Nepal is these days not as reliant on India as it has historically been, especially after the landmark trade and transit agreements signed with China in the wake of the blockade.
Too Little Too Late
It is true that Oli has also sought to mend his frayed ties with New Delhi following his election as prime minister. Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj visited Kathmandu on February 1 after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi got a clear signal from Oli that he was ready to forget past bitterness and start anew. Earlier, when Modi called Oli to congratulate him on his re-election and invited him to visit India, Oli not only accepted the invite; he replied that he was as keen to welcome Modi to Janakpur and Muktinath, the two holy sites in Nepal Modi has long wanted to visit. The inclusion of Madhesi parties in the Oli government is expected to further ease bilateral ties. Concerns over Madhesi representation were at the core of India’s concerns over the 2015 Nepali Constitution.
There has, moreover, been progress in negotiations on the revision of old Nepal-India treaties that many Nepalis consider unequal. According to recent news reports, India is now ready to discuss regulating the open border, and even considering allowing Nepal to import arms from third countries. India had otherwise treated these issues as non-negotiable. These negotiations may again come to a naught. Nonetheless, Nepali interlocutors in these dialogues sense a definite shift in India’s stand.
But current efforts to revive India-Nepal relations may be a case of too little, too late. Oli knows that for his political longevity he cannot afford an openly hostile India. But at this late stage in his political career, those close to him say, all he cares about is leaving behind a strong legacy as a statesman. With his health failing, Oli knows time is not on his side.
He seems determined to be remembered as the Nepali leader who dared to dream of a future for Nepal independently of India. But not just that. Above all, he wants to be remembered as someone who took concrete steps to turn that old Nepali dream intoa reality. This is why even before assuming office after winning recent elections, he had vowed to expedite connectivity projects with China. To show he is serious he has newly empowered the Prime Minster’s Office to personally oversee their progress.
There are other ways Oli can help China’s cause. During Abbasi’s Nepal visit, the two prime ministers agreed on reviving the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India has in recent times made a concerted effort to isolate Pakistan, which is why the SAARC summit planned for 2016 in Islamabad had to be postponed indefinably. Abbasi came to Kathmandu to ask for Oli’s support for a prompt holding of the summit — and on Pakistani soil. Abbasi also in a roundabout way suggested that Nepal could mediate talks between India and Pakistan.
India will not be pleased. The last time Nepal and Pakistan were seriously talking was on the eve of the 2014 SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Back then, the two countries had agreed to make China a full SAARC member, which had earned them the great ire of India. India has traditionally not taken kindly to any suggestion for third-party mediation on Kashmir, for example, or for China to play a greater role in SAARC.
India nonetheless may have no option but to accept the writing on the wall. Rather than browbeat its neighbors into following its diktat, as it tried to do with the blockade — or so most Nepalis felt — New Delhi must learn to accept China’s presence in the region and to work with it. China has always supported the idea of trilateral cooperation with Nepal and India, for example with a connecting rail link via Nepal. But India has resisted the suggestion tooth and nail.
This is not to imply that closer relations with China are unquestionably in Nepal’s interest. The political systems of the two countries are polar opposites. There is also little people-to-people engagement, even though cross-border tourism and business exchanges are growing apace. Geography too makes India Nepal’s natural development partner. It would thus be unwise to write the obituary of Indian primacy in Nepal, as some have done of late.
But the Modi government would do well to learn from its mistakes. These days in Nepal, there is no shortage of advice for India on how it can mend its errant ways, or forever lose even its reduced clout. The consensus is that only through open and unconditional engagement with small countries in the region like Nepal and Bhutan can India have a peaceful neighborhood that is conducive to its continued economic rise.
Biswas Baral is the editor of The Annapurna Express, published from Kathmandu. Follow him on Twitter: @biswasktm