By Kamal Nayak (NEW DELHI, 12 July 2017) – After Sirdar Manjeev Singh Puri has taken over the mantle as Indian ambassador to Nepal few months ago, one frequent question that one gets to hear alike from the streets of Kathmandu to the gullies of Dehli is: has India started reviewing its policy towards Nepal?
And this question naturally gets too many auxiliary questions. What will happen next? Had India gone too far in Nepal with regards to the new constitution of the tiny Himalayan state? What will be the next steps of the South Block? Will Indian operatives still be allowed to call shots in Nepal? Why did they fail this time? And many more.
Before delving into the most important question, vis-a-vis Nepal-India relations, of whether India has started reviewing its Nepal Policy, it’s good to take stock of the emerging geopolitical scenario of South Asia, because why India entered so exposedly into the “internal affairs of Nepal” was primarily because of geopolitics. Indian decision-makers certainly wrongly believed that the government of Nepal led by KP Sharma Oli was leaning towards China. They also wrongly believed, despite having worked with Oli’s party CPN-UML for a long time, the actual backforce of Oli, who could talk to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi eyeball to eyeball, was China.
I have said in the past, including in this space, that India had pushed Oli’s Nepal to the Chinese arms. India’s blockade on Nepal in 2015-16 was China’s opportunity to present itself as a benevolent saviour of Nepal from a “rascal look-a-like India”.
I have one more thing to say. Oli is that stalwart of Nepali politics who seems to understand geopolitics the best compared to any of his contemporary political leaders in Nepal. He spent 14 years in prison during his struggle against absolute monarchy in the 70s and 80s of previous century. From western history, philosophy to oriental culture, he is astoundingly well-read and knowledgeable than many would like to believe. In Kathmandu, one would meet ambassadors and members of foreign delegations who return back to their offices having gone through Oli’s lessons after their meetings with him. This also brings him criticism that he speaks too much. But this is the problem of the people with knowledge. Oli acts as that lion whose dahaad in his home turf emanates from his self-confidence that there is no political counterpart in Nepal to match his prowess, politically as well as in terms of knowledge. This is from where he gets the courage to talk to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in equal footing, who also considers himself an unmatched politician in India, which he is. To reach to a conclusion of a Chinese hand in KP Oli’s courage to stand against the Great Indian Blockade was a complete misinterpretation of the affairs by India.
Making things worse was the outgoing Indian Ambassador in Nepal Ranajit Rae, who for personal reasons, kept demonizing KP Oli in the South Block. His reports, say informed sources in the Ministry of External Affairs, paint Oli in the negative light, projecting him as an “agent of China” and standing “against India’s long-term interests in Nepal”. Rae was an able diplomat, but his attitude towards Nepali politicians of all associations, was condescending at best. Oli was no exception. But it has done a big damage to the relations between India and Nepal. All I want to say is India is primarily responsible, not only as the first party of mistake by imposing a blockade, but also by refusing to understand the basic rules of the game of Nepali internal politics.
Coming back to the larger question of more current geopolitics, India and China at the moment are engaged in an escalated conflict at the border in Doklam, a tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China. This is an unlikely surprise given by China to India’s flagging of Dalai Lama card. When this border crisis further escalates, going by the admission of India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, India has to be prepared for “two and half front war”, meaning, if China chooses to deepen tensions in the border and if that develops into a war, then this will not be the war only between India and China. Pakistan will immediately open fire in the western border. No realist would ever take time to conclude that this will be the war to lose for India. By the time the US would come for India’s rescue, if at all, the damage would already have happened.
Here comes the importance of Nepal, which for ages, has served as the northern frontier for India. Caught in a conflict with China, India cannot afford to engage Nepal through an orchastrated political instability. This will cost India its own interests. In fact, despite having a government and a coalition installed by India in Kathmandu for almost one year now, Indian mission to amend the constitution of Nepal by instrumentalizing the Mahdesi forces has not only miserably failed, but also backfired. The constitution amendment has been put off. Madhesi parties have been weakened. The Pro-India ruling coalition comprising the Nepali Congress and Maoists has been shamefully exposed.
The result is: CPN-UML, led by KP Oli has emerged as the biggest party in the recently held local elections. The Maoists have gone almost non-existent. Nepali Congress, having entered electoral alliance with several political parties, came second. Oli’s aura has spread so far and wide that UML’s competitors have lost the ability to fight elections on their own. In western Terai, which once was the cradle of Madhes Aandolan, Oli’s party rules the roost now.
India thus has arrived in a situation from where it has to review its Nepal policy, meaning it has to engage positively with KP Oli and his party, giving the kind of respect they deserve. This is where ambassador Puri has to put his focus. Oli understands he will have to pay back respect with respect. He has openly said, while criticizing India’s bullying attitude, Nepal to survive as a nation-state has to address the core concerns of India. It’s high time India articulated its own core interests in Nepal.
As per the pssible next steps of the South Block, one would not predict any drastic change. S. Jayashankar still harbours bitterness over his failure to defer the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution. He has taken a backseat approach but actual review of Nepal policy will come into effect only when he retires probably after six months. New driver of MEA and ambassador Puri then have to work together to craft a new Nepal Policy. Diversification of the focus from consitution amendment is a good start for now. But they can do it only if they listen to the sane voices in Kathmandu and Delhi. They need to be aware of the fact that there are more spoliers in Indo-Nepal relations than the builders of the bridges. Those who talk sweet are more dangerous!