Nepal: In pro-China Oli, India faces a Himalayan foreign policy challenge (TNN’s report)

By Sachin Parashar| TNN (13 Dec 2017) -NEW DELHI: The government has been busy flogging Pakistan this election season but it’s Nepal which has thrown up one of the biggest challenges for India’s neighbourhood policy in recent times. After the communists stormed to power in Nepal, India’s bugbear K P Sharma Oli, who makes no secret of his fondness for Beijing, is all set to take over as prime minister as the senior partner in the Left coalition.

Oli, after he was forced to resign last year, had accused India of effecting a government change by forcing Maoists to withdraw support from his government through a “remote control”.

China in fact pulled off a coup ahead of the elections which, as the UN has said, were intended to complete the country’s transition to democracy under the 2015 Constitution by uniting the splintering communist opposition, bringing together CPN-UML chief Oli and CPN (Maoist Centre) leader PK Dahal Prachanda. As strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney says, a communist government in Nepal will be beholden to Beijing.

“In his earlier stint as PM, Oli stoked tensions with the plains people (Madhesis) and with India. Dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics, Oli scapegoated India for Nepal’s political and constitutional crisis. His return to power will be bad news for India,” says Chellaney.

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal says Oli has to be careful as China, which is said to have worked behind the scenes to bring the Communists together, would want to extract a price after the election outcome. “China’s influence in Nepal is well known and one hopes that after he assumes charge, he will behave with maturity and not cause fresh headache for India,” says Sibal.

The pro-India Nepali Congress has suffered a humiliating defeat, the kind of which it has never seen before. It was under Oli early last year that Nepal signed a trade and transit agreement with China seeking to reduce its dependence on India. At an election rally last month, Oli said that the era of economic blockade was over for Nepal with the signing of that agreement when he visited China in 2016.

Oli was referring to the economic blockade allegedly imposed by India in late 2015 after the freshly promulgated Constitution which was seen as discriminatory by the Madhesis. Nepal faced severe shortage of fuel and other commodities which led Oli, who was then PM, to say that imposing a blockade to a landlocked nation was a breach of international treaties, norms and values.

For India, which is already faced with increasing Chinese presence in the region, the challenge would be to ensure that Nepal under Oli doesn’t turn into what Sri Lanka was under its former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Or the Maldives which recently signed an FTA with China with revealing the details of the agreement. As Chellaney says, after the erosion of its clout in the Maldives, India is confronting a similar retreat of influence in Nepal, a country symbiotically tied to India and with which India even has an open border. And unlike the last time, when he was heading a rickety coalition, Oli will be here to stay this time as the new Constitution precludes the introduction of a no-confidence motion against the prime minister for at least 2 years.

TNN, 13 December 2017

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