Careful negotiations that brought about the post-Doklam detente between India and China hinges to a large extent on mutual sensitivity to each other’s concerns while pursuing their interests in the subcontinent. The movement of a small but crucial piece can change the complexion of the diplomatic chessboard, though. The extent to which this understanding works, therefore, may face its first test during the three-day official visit of Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli to New Delhi from April 6.
“The current status of India-China ties has always been a big parameter in judging the political mood in Nepal,” acknowledges India’s former ambassador in Kathmandu, Ranjit Rae.
The monarchy onwards, all Nepali political leaders have tried to play the ‘China card’ in driving hard bargains with India. How the visiting Nepalese PM strikes a balance between the two Asian giants in a changed diplomatic scenario has gained great importance.
Significantly, until recently, K.P. Oli was perceived by the Indian establishment as a man close to China. Though a one-time friend of India, it was Oli’s first stint as PM in 2015 that saw New Delhi-Kathmandu ties nosedive. The failure of the Nepalese leadership to find space for the Madhesis’ aspirations in their new constitution had angered Nepal’s terai region and their main backer—India.
The resultant agitation, followed by an economic blockade by India that cut off essential supplies, had subjected the Nepalese people to endless misery. To tide over the crisis, K.P. Oli had turned to Beijing. Subsequently, both from gratitude towards its eastern neighbour and also from a desire to thumb his nose at India, he ended up signing the important Transit Agreement with China. However, he was soon removed from power and replaced by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as premier. Many felt Indian machination was behind his ouster.
But K.P. Oli had earned the support of the Nepalese people. Seen as a tough leader who stood up to Indian ‘bullying’, he promptly bounced back. As his outfit, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) became the largest party in last year’s parliamentary elections in Nepal, Oli returned as PM. Prachanda, ironically, is now his coalition partner and there is serious negotiation between the two for a merging the two Communist parties.
For all his strong stand in the past, Oli now wants to mend ties with India. “I am visiting India to strengthen bilateral relations,” he told the Nepalese media. He also stressed that “India will play a supportive role in Nepal’s development”, while also affirming China’s support for the country’s development.
Most observers see Oli’s visit as part of the India-Nepal rapprochement. “His attempt is to put aside past differences and start afresh,” says Rae.
Nepal’s former ambassador to New Delhi, Bhek Bahadur Thapa, concurs. He points out the need for a ‘reset’ in ties and says this is a “good opportunity”, since Oli represents a government with a new mandate. “The two sides now need an enhanced connectivity and trust-based communication,” adds Thapa.
K.P. Sharma Oli meets Xi Jinping in Beijing
Oli has said his foreign policy would be ‘balanced’ and that Nepal has cordial ties with India and China.
The initiative for this new beginning, however, came from the Indian Prime Minister. It was Narendra Modi who called Oli to congratulate him soon after his victory in the parliamentary polls. The phone call was followed by Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Kathmandu even before Oli was formally elected Nepal PM. It clearly indicated that India was eager to start afresh.
The other important signal Swaraj conveyed was that New Delhi was keeping a safe distance from internal political developments in Nepal. This assured the CPN (UML) leader that irrespective of the merger between the two Communist parties, no immediate attempts will be made to destabilise him.
On his part, Oli also showed pragmatism. By going along with tradition in choosing India—and not China—as his first port of call as Nepal’s PM, he reciprocated the Indian gesture.
“This visit will give him the chance to project himself as a big leader who was not only stable, but also as one who is meeting the Chinese and Indian leaders on his own terms,” points out Rae.
Oli is also aware that he cannot rely on China alone for Nepal’s development. The difficult phase in India-Nepal ties notwithstanding, he also feels that the need of the hour was to placate New Delhi and to assure PM Modi of his friendship.
This line also suits Indian leaders. The Modi regime had come under a lot of flak over the past few years for messing up New Delhi’s relations with Kathmandu and, in the bargain, giving Beijing a free run in Nepal. New Delhi now has an opportunity to iron out the accumulated strain in bilateral ties.
In a recent interaction with the diplomatic community in Kathmandu, Oli had emphasised that his foreign policy will be ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’. He told them that Nepal enjoys cordial relations with both India and China. “Amity with all and enmity with none” was to be his government’s motto, the prime minister added.
Officials involved in the visit say that both sides will seek ‘result-oriented’ agreements and projects that can be implemented in a time-bound manner. This was to ensure that they benefit Indians and Nepalese in a short time. Many such projects in the past had been plagued by the inordinate delay in their implementation and execution. Some of these mega projects are the hydro-electric Arun III projects, the Pancheswar multi-purpose project, an oil pipeline project, and the postal highway projects. These would boost economic and investment partnership, improve connectivity and help in capacity building.
There can also be cooperation in the area of film-making. Oli plans to turn Nepal into a destination for shooting films and Indian film-makers are his obvious choice. Several senior members of Nepal’s film industry are part of the his delegation.
A number of pending issues relating to the boundary dispute between India and Nepal also demand urgent attention. Though some political leaders in Nepal wanted Oli to raise them with India, he will possibly avoid talking about contentious issues in this ‘goodwill’ visit. Instead, the two sides may explore ways to cooperate with each other on expanding the Buddhist circuit to attract tourists and develop Janakpur as a destination for Indian tourists and pilgrims.
But does all this cooperation measure up to countering the looming footprint of China in South Asia in general and Nepal in particular? Many in the Indian establishment continue to see Beijing primarily as a threat rather than a partner and feel all attempts should be made to undermine Chinese presence in the subcontinent.
There is, however, another less belligerent view in South Block that is not averse to look for areas of cooperation with China for Nepal’s stability, development and economic prosperity.
Whether K.P. Oli’s visit paves the way for the three countries moving on a more cooperative route may be clearer in the coming days. For a large number of Nepalese who manfully bore the brunt of bad relations between the two countries, and who don’t relish the possibility of their nation being caught between two competing giants, there cannot be a better outcome.