Biswas Baral has been associated with Republica national daily as a journalist since 2011. He oversees the op-ed pages of Republica and writes and reports on Nepal's foreign affairs. He is a regular contributor to The Wire (India).
China too is now starting to cultivate its own competing group of politicians, bureaucrats and security personnel in Nepal
This past year was a rollercoaster ride for Nepal. It started with the blockade of the Indo-Nepal border. The fact that it was India’s blockade (with Madheshi parties coming on board only later) was evident from the start. Only after vehicles from India stopped crossing over to Nepal (on September 20, 2015) did the Madheshi parities declare they were blockading vital border points (on September 24). India had imposed the blockade as it was unhappy with the Kathmandu establishment bringing a constitution without its express approval. In other words, notwithstanding the genuine grievances of Madheshis and Janajatis, Nepal had to pay for daring to chart its own destiny.
The blockade was eventually lifted at the start of February when India unilaterally declared the border points open following the first amendment of the new constitution at the end of January, 2015. India welcomed the amendment; Madheshi parties rejected it outright. On February 5, 2016 the Madheshi Morcha cadres who had gone to the no-man’s land in Raxaul to stage their regular sit-in found that their tents had been uprooted and Indian security personnel, who had before supported them, were now chasing them away. India had once again ‘used and thrown’ Madheshi parties.
I have in the past one year talked to numerous Madheshi leaders and not one of them thinks India works in the interest of common Madheshis. To give just two examples, Federal Alliance Chairman Upendra Yadav believes that had India been in favor of Madheshis, their problems would have been sorted out long ago. Tarai Madhesh Loktantrik Party’s Sarbendranath Sukla accuses New Delhi of always siding with Kathmandu. He thinks only the Indians living right across the border in Bihar and UP, and with whom Madheshis share roti-beti ties, genuinely support the Madheshi cause.
Just as they had rejected the first amendment of the new constitution—terming it ‘incomplete’ as it was silent on their main demand of redrawing provincial boundaries—the Madheshi parties had also initially rejected the proposed second set of amendments.
This was because even the second amendment didn’t give them what they wanted: two, Madhesh-only provinces running the entire length of the country. This, they said, was their bottom line. It was only after considerable arm-twisting by Indian ambassador Ranjit Rae did they reluctantly support the second amendment bill, provided that it was tweaked to their liking. But it now appears they are in a mood to accept the current proposal and go into the three sets of elections with some issues deliberately left intact.
Divide and rule
There is a mistaken belief in Kathmandu that India always (or only) sides with Madheshi
parties. Some even go to the extent of accusing the Madheshi parties of working for India by proxy.
That is unfair on Madheshi parties because there are enough Congress and UML leaders, including Messrs Deuba and Oli, who have over the years amply milked India’s good offices for personal advantage.
India doesn’t care so much about Madheshis, or Pahades or any of the other groups in Nepal. All it cares about are its interests and the Indian establishment will use all tools in its arsenal—that have been borrowed directly from Kautilya—to secure those interests. This is why sometimes it throws its weight behind establishment parties and sometimes behind the Madheshi forces, for they are only pawns in the great geopolitical game in this neck of the world.
Yes, the leadership in New Delhi changed following the landslide victory of BJP in 2014 national elections in India. The new Indian Prime Minister signaled a break from the past and committed to focus first on his immediate neighborhood. He invited the heads of all seven other SAARC states to his swearing-in ceremony. He also visited Nepal shortly after assuming office, wooing one and all.
But to believe that Narendra Modi represents a radical rethinking of India’s regional diplomacy, for good or bad, is to misunderstand the nature of India’s engagement in its neighborhood. The primary (two-fold) objective of Indian neighborhood diplomacy has been unchanged for past 70 years. One, it is to consolidate its old ‘sphere of influence’ over the three kingdoms (Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim); with Sikkim now in its fold, India wants to tighten its grip on Nepal and Bhutan.
Two, the objective of India’s neighborhood diplomacy is to keep the Chinese out. The Indians have been paranoid about any perceived Chinese inroads into South Asia ever since it humiliatingly lost the 1962 border war. Determined never to be so badly outfoxed, it created RAW, its international intelligence agency, which played a pivotal role in amalgamation of Sikkim into India. RAW has since been busy spreading its tentacles in South Asia, including in Nepal. The old fear of China is also why India always tries to match (or even outdo, not always successfully) any economic help that China extends to South Asian countries, and why the Indian ambassador likes to often fly to Nepali districts abutting China’s Tibet.
Although India has tried to play it cool after it emerged that Nepal Army would be holding its first-ever military drills with China’s PLA, Indian strategists are losing their sleep over it. In their view, this is yet another proof of China trying to eat away, inch by inch, at the Indian primacy in its old sphere. So there has been considerable pressure on Nepal Army to drop its plan and not jeopardize its strong relations with the Indian Army.
For once the Indians are right. China has ramped up its checkbook diplomacy, and now, it appears, military diplomacy, in South Asia as a direct reaction to growing strategic collaboration between the US and India ‘to encircle’ China. Just like the Indians are paranoid about keeping China out of its old sphere, the Chinese have historically been as fearful of any hint of encirclement by a ‘concert of democracies’.
A record number of our bureaucrats and students were thus taken on all-expenses-paid China tours in 2016. China has in fact found it easy to woo Nepali officials who had felt humiliated by India’s blockade. India has over the years carefully cultivated a core group of supporters in Nepal. China too is now starting to cultivate its own competing group of politicians, bureaucrats and security personnel.
The joint Nepal-China military drills are a clearest sign yet that China is abandoning its traditional hands-off policy in Nepal. Expect the gloves to come off in 2017.