Outside of the quixotic Gujral doctrine, India occupies a default ‘Big Brother’ mode in the subcontinent—and conciliatory gestures are not what its neighbours usually expect. Caught in its self-image as the defining core of South Asia, India has often waited for the smaller nations to reach out to smooth wrinkles, if and when they appear to strain bilateral relations.
But equations have changed with China looming large and looking to expand its footprint and influence in the Himalayan arc—whether coercively, as in Doklam last year, or diplomatically, or through a blend of both. New Delhi knows it can no longer afford to leave anything to chance.
Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s two-day “goodwill” visit to Kathmandu last week for talks with Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and very possibly the next prime minister—an office he held for nearly a year in 2015-2016— has to be seen in that context.
Inevitably, India’s gesture has raised eyebrows. 2017 was a watershed year for Nepal as the country successfully held three elections—at the federal, provincial and local levels—all under the new constitution. These elections were widely believed to be peaceful and legitimate by outsiders as well as political parties. As per the new constitution, the country will have a bicameral parliament with a 275-member lower house—the House of Representatives. Of these, 165 are elected via first-past-the-post and the remaining 110 by proportional representation. In the election, held between November 26 and December 7, the UML emerged as the largest party with 121 representatives, short of the 138 required for a majority.
This apart, there is a 59-member National Assembly or upper house, to which eight members are to be indirectly elected from each of the seven provinces and three are to be nominated. This process has not yet taken place, but it is likely to be completed by February. Once it is over, a new PM will be elected by a vote of both houses, requiring a majority to take office. There is little doubt that Oli will emerge victorious. But until all is finalised, there is room for other players to drive the best bargain for themselves and their parties vis-à-vis the “would-be PM”.
None of these caveats prevented Swaraj from holding detailed talks with Oli and his close aides; this included an exclusive 40-minute one-on-one meeting with the UML leader, leading to nervousness and disappointment among the country’s other political players.
The Nepali Congress—traditionally close to Delhi—issued a statement terming the Indian foreign minister’s visit “ill-timed”. Former PM and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), whose party is in talks with Oli’s UML for a formal merger following the success of their alliance in the last election, also appeared miffed. Both Prachanda and Sher Bahadur Deuba—the sitting PM and leader of the Nepali Congress—were in the process of driving hard bargains with Oli ahead of reaching a formal agreement to elect the UML leader to the PM’s post.
But India’s move was aimed at sending out the signal to Oli and also to other aspirants for the PM’s post that Delhi was not interested in playing any role that could scuttle Oli’s chances and lead to a new phase of instability in Nepal.
“It was a smart thing on the government’s part to have sent Sushma Swaraj early on with its message,” says former MEA secretary K.V. Rajan, who also served a stint in the mid-1990s as India’s ambassador to Nepal. “But a close watch has to be kept on how things pan out, especially over the growing footprint of China in Nepal,” he adds.
The Madhesi agitation and the economic blockade would occur just over a year after Modi was fêted in Nepal
Oli’s last encounter with India as Nepal’s PM in 2015-16 ended in bitterness. Delhi’s public disapproval of the new constitution was seen by Oli and others as having encouraged the Madhesis, who felt that their aspirations had not been accommodated in the settlement, to launch a violent agitation. This in turn led to India imposing a blockade, stopping lorries entering land-locked Nepal with essential supplies.
Taking a stand against India, Oli turned to China for support to tide over the crisis, which hardened India’s attitude towards him further . Soon afterwards, Prachanda, whose party was a key alliance partner in the government, withdrew support, forcing Oli to resign and then seizing the PM’s post for himself through a power-sharing arrangement with Deuba—a move carried out with Indian backing, in the eyes of Oli and others.
But now both sides seem keen to put the past behind them and start afresh.
Interestingly, it is Narendra Modi who is responsible for this outreach initiative. Soon after taking office as India’s PM in May 2014, he seemed to engage with Nepal in a positive manner, visiting the country with great fanfare, but then allowed relations to plummet to an all-time low on his watch by encouraging the blockade. Now he seems anxious to mend differences and start a new phase in bilateral ties—but India’s actions in this regard are coming under the microscope.
“Trust-deficit is the main problem for India in Nepal,” says Kathmandu-based political commentator Yubaraj Ghimire. He points out that the gap between what India promises and what it delivers remains a major drawback for establishing its credibility in Indo-Nepal relations.
When Modi decided to call up Oli and subsequently, Prachanda and Deuba on successfully conducting the elections and on their individual victories, expressing his willingness to work with all of them for Nepal’s peace, progress and prosperity, he was also acknowledging the legitimacy of the new constitution. This certainly marked a departure from India’s earlier disapproving stance.
Oli reciprocated the gesture on January 26 when he called up the Indian PM to congratulate him on India’s Republic Day and made it clear that Nepal looked forward to learning from India about dealing with the challenges that a multi-ethnic, democratic republic faces.
The decision to send Swaraj to Kathmandu was therefore meant to reassure Oli and others of India’s commitment to a close partnership with Nepal.
Many observers feel that one way of cementing this new found bonhomie between the two sides would be for Oli to choose Delhi over Beijing for his first foreign visit as Prime Minister. However, there are others who argue that it will be better if Modi goes to Nepal soon, especially before the Chinese President’s likely visit to the country in March. “If that happens, it will help in upstaging China and re-establishing India as the primary player in Nepal,” opines Ghimire.
Though the spectre of China is often used by Indian policymakers to enlist support for the current drive in Nepal, some remain sceptical about the extent of this threat. “The fast-expanding Chinese footprint is often an exaggeration,” says former Indian ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae. He points out that, though China will continue to be a viable option for Nepal, it is difficult to see how any country can replace the primacy of place that India enjoys there. However, he adds that, in order to maintain that status, India will have to be more attentive to Nepalese concerns, and also look at areas of cooperation with China; after all, the stability of Nepal is in the interests of both its larger neighbours.
However, domestic issues are also a potential source of political instability in Nepal. For instance, despite the hype, a merger between the two communist parties is not in Prachanda’s interest as it would leave him little room to manoeuvre and drive a better bargain for himself. Unless he can find a satisfactory accommodation in an arrangement with Oli, he may look for support from elsewhere to change the equation and undermine Oli’s position. While the threat of Prachanda once again forming a coalition with the Congress and the Madhesi parties remains unuttered, it hangs over the “would-be-PM” like a Sword of Damocles, as such an alliance would have the majority required to form a government.
Much of this may happen with initiatives from domestic players. But if India remains committed to Nepal’s stability, provided its interests are not hampered under Oli’s premiership, we may witness a new phase in Nepal’s history and see its emergence as a vibrant and stable democratic republic.