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).
India wants to keep China-baiting and ‘anti-Madhesi’ KP Sharma Oli and his party out of power at any cost. That would be a mistake.
“We should have accepted the accession of Nepal to India when it was offered to us by King Tribhuvan,” senior BJP leader K.R. Malkani was quoted as saying in 2000. Were it not for “very serious, very foolish mistake” on the part of Jawaharlal Nehru, who, apparently, rejected the offer, “Nepal today would be much like Sikkim, a part of India,” Malkani said (The Hindu, Jan 1, 2001). This ‘offer’ has since been mentioned many times by Indian commentators, most notably by former Indian ambassador to Nepal, KV Rajan (The Hindu, May 3, 2008). These are precisely the kind of unfounded statements that so riles Nepalis.
As I argued last week, one reason Nepal has been forced to nudge closer to China is the growing perception that India tries to ‘micromanage’ events in Kathmandu on the pretext of its ‘historical burden’. In contrast, there is this concomitant tendency to see China as Nepal’s ‘eternal and true’ friend. This perception about Indian meddling is not unfounded, the micromanagement reaching its apogee during the 2015-16 blockade.
Perhaps India now realizes it pushed Nepal too far. During his recent India visit, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, traditionally among India’s most trusted lieutenants in Kathmandu, let it drop that China is Nepal’s true friend and it has never threatened Nepal’s sovereignty.
The recent bonhomie between Nepali Congress and China aside, there were also enough signs during Deuba’s India visit that New Delhi wants to give continuity to the current Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition, possibly with the inclusion of Madhes-based parties.
The intent is to keep China-baiting and ‘anti-Madhesi’ KP Sharma Oli and his CPN-UML party out of power, at any cost. That would be a mistake.
The reason for UML’s cresting popularity is India’s continued highhandedness in Nepal and Oli’s unique ability to project his party as the sole bulwark against the ‘devious designs’ of the southern neighbor. Even when he was the prime minister at the time of the blockade, Oli had doggedly refused to bow before Indian blackmailing and gone on to sign a landmark trade and transit deal with China. Arguably, was it not for the five months of the crippling blockade and the resultant surge in anti-India sentiments, the anti-India nationalist agenda of UML would have been less popular this election season.
Milking India dry
Now India appears to be actively campaigning to keep UML out. As one UML insider shared with me, India has of late tried to minimize contacts with UML leaders, for instance by not inviting them to Indian Embassy functions, and by excluding them from the Nepali delegations the Indian Ministry of External Affairs routinely takes on all-India junkets. The goal, in his reckoning, is to cut UML down to size.
If there is evidence of such Indian role in keeping him out, or even if there is no smoking gun, Oli is sure to milk it to maximum electoral advantage. With anti-India sentiments in Nepal sky-high, meddling in Nepali politics to keep a particular party out of power is almost certain to result in millions of sympathy votes for that very party.
The Indians also overestimate their ability to influence events in Kathmandu. For instance, even after the promulgation of the new constitution, they had wanted to keep Oli from becoming prime minister, but to no avail. Whether India likes it or not, if UML emerges as the single largest political force after the federal elections, it will, sooner or later, form a government under its leadership.
India must also realize that UML’s anti-Madhesi image and its purported proximity to China are both exaggerated. If it were so unpopular in Madhes, it would have been impossible for UML to emerge as the single-biggest party in the local elections. Just like Congress, UML has deep roots in Madhes, thanks to its committed, class-based vote bank. It is not a coincidence that most of its lawmakers from Tarai-Madhes are native Madhesis. The blockade also contributed to UML’s anti-Madhesi image: Oli happened to be prime minister at the time, and in the polarized political climate, other parties found it convenient to blame Oli for the turmoil in Tarai-Madhes.
It is true that Oli is close to China. But then which Nepali leader these days is not? Top Maoist leaders like Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Krishna Bahadur Mahara have long been known to have soft spots for China. Likewise, Deuba, as he hinted recently in New Delhi, also knows that post-blockade it would be unwise to be seen as anti-China going into the remaining elections. While being pro-China goes down well among certain constituencies, being seen as pro-India will yield Congress few votes, even among Madhesis, whose lives have been battered by floods resulting from India-built roads and dams.
Know your friends
Rather than try to keep him out at any cost, the Indian establishment would be wiser to mend its frayed relations with Oli. No one in Nepal has forgotten that until recently Oli was known as among India’s most trusted politicians in Nepal, with extensive contacts not just with Indian political leaders but also with Indian foreign policy mandarins and intelligence officials.
The Indian political establishment should also keep in mind that the extensive ties between Nepal and India cannot be easily matched by China, at least not in the near future. As such India can easily employ its substantial leverage in Kathmandu to, say, quietly push for Madhesi rights.
The single biggest thing India can do right now, and which will also instantly lead to more goodwill, is to work with Nepal to control the flooding of cross-border rivers, which does great harm not just to Nepal’s Tarai-Madhes but also to India’s own Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Then, as was recently agreed in the joint border commission meeting, ensure that all 1,751 kilometers of border with Nepal is properly marked. Another thing India could do is to see to timely completion of the projects it has started in Nepal, rather than sit on them eternally.
I have long maintained that India must let go of its old mindset that Nepal falls under its exclusive sphere of influence and Kathmandu must do its bidding at all times. Why is the largest democracy in the world so insecure that it has to strong-arm its supposedly closest friend even on minor things? Where is the confidence that a growing world power should have? Why is it so afraid of Chinese inroads when it can easily use its vast soft power in Nepal to easily counter Chinese propaganda?
Things like BJP stalwarts cooking up false historical claims over Nepal and the enduring penchant of some RSS figures for the restoration of the ‘Hindu monarch’ are deeply damaging to Indian interests in Nepal.
For one, Nehru, as Bharat Karnad so persuasively argues, was a keen student of realpolitik, and it is inconceivable that he would have declined the offer if Nepal was being offered to him on a silver platter. So this is no more than a BJP heresy. Moreover, I would argue that while Nehru’s practice of realism was justified in India’s dealings with bigger powers like China and the then USSR, and especially at the time of the Cold War, it is a poor guide for India’s policy towards its small neighbors like Nepal and Bhutan today.
In this context, if New Delhi is determined to micromanage events here, for instance by lobbying to keep UML out, then it should also not complain of Nepal’s inexorable Long March to China.