Khadga Prasad Oli, after assuming the office of the Prime Minister of Nepal in February, has come to India on his first foreign visit. This three-day visit with a 53 member delegation has started from 6 April 2018. Narendra Modi government is rolling out the red carpet for the Commrade Oli, who is also the Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and ideologically and politically close to China. In spite of his return to power after his left coalitions’ decisive victory over pro-India parties in the last election, Oli has decided to respect the tradition and select India for his first visit abroad. However, the relations between India and its smaller but strategically critical neighbor Nepal is not the same as it used to be in the past.
Large number of people move across the border regularly for jobs and other economic opportunities. Over and above, both the countries are Hindu majority countries. However, contrary to expectation, the relationship between these two countries have become openly conflictual and even hostile in recent years. Strong anti-India sentiment among Nepalese population is not new. The anti-India constituency in Nepal has been growing for decades, but what is new is due to China’s emergence as a global power has emboldened the political elites of Nepal to openly challenge India. A number of Nepalese political leaders are regularly using anti-India tirade to strengthen their political base. India is not in a position anymore to take Nepal for granted.
It is true that China has provided the strength to the political elites of Nepal to not to always listen to India anymore. But, the question one needs to ask that why Nepalese Hindu electorates, instead of being pro-India are mostly cheering for anti-India tirade of pro-China politicians. The anti-India popular sentiments in Bangladesh has been usually blamed by Indian analysts as the manifestation of religious divide between two countries. If that is so, there should not have been any anti-India sentiment in a predominantly Hindu country like Nepal. India and Nepal have disagreement over the issues of trade and transit and also on areas of security concerns. In recent years, India support for Madhesis has also become a major irritant. However, if one looks closely the bilateral relationship between India and Nepal, the most consistent and highly emotional reason of Nepalese anger has been India’s perceived exploitation of Nepal’s rich water resources for its own agricultural and energy needs.
Nepal might be an economically poor country, but it is extremely rich with river water resources. However, Nepal lacks the capital and technology required to build large dams and other water projects and also needs a buyer to sell its hydropower. In the past, India used to be the only country that was willing and able to provide assistance as it needed the water projects in Nepal for its own irrigation and hydropower needs and also for the flood control. Thus, India’s direct involvement in the utilization of the river water in Nepal has been crucial till now. But, there is a strong feeling in Nepal that the country has not been treated equitably under the various past water agreements with India.
The water issue has made the bilateral relations bitter even before India’s independence. The Colonial administration had signed the Sarada Treaty with Nepal in 1920, on the basis of which India contsructed the Sarada barrage on Mahakali River after exchanging 4,000 acres of territory. However, people of Nepal considerd the treaty being partial to India and became angry over the less amount of water allocated to them. After independence, India again pushed Nepal to sign agreements to build Kosi barrage in 1954 and Gandak Barrage in 1959. These India financed projects in Nepal were increasingly being perceived as ‘sell out’ of the national interest by most of the Nepalese and has been the catalyst for popular opposition to any of India’s new projects in Nepal.
India is increasingly facing water scarcity. Besides adding to its water supply for the irrigation and drinking water needs, India also aims at developing river water resources in Nepal to produce hydro-power for its growing economy. However, increasing popular opposition within Nepal against ‘Indian’ water projects has delayed the implementation of several of them. Lack of trust in Nepal for India has brought an impasse to the implementation of the Mahakali Treaty, which had offered an opportunity in 1996 to both the countries to make a new start in re-conceptualizing their bilateral river water cooperation. Inspite of repeated promises, Narendra Modi government has also failed to start the construction of Pancheswar dam project under the Mahakali Treaty, instead the plan has started a new round of popular opposition in Nepal against India.
Nepal lacks the capital and technology required to build large dams, which are critical for the poor mountainous country to industrialize and develop. The perceived unfair treatment in its past water agreements and the ever increasing anti-India constituency in the country have pushed Nepal to explore Chinese finance and collaboration to develop its water resources in recent years. India’s unofficial economic blockade of Nepal after the Himalayan state’s promulgation of the new constitution on 20 September 2015, created unprecedented energy crisis in the country and the growing anger against India ignited Nepal’s desire for further closer ties with China. However, India continues to oppose China’s involvement in developing Nepal’s water resources. Just before the election in Nepal, in November 2017, the previous government under Nepalese Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba coming under Indian pressure had to cancel the US$2.5 billion deal with China’s Gezhouba Group to build Budhi Gandaki Hydro Electric Project. This turned out to be a big election issue for anti-India political establishment in Nepal. Prime Minister Oli now wants to give back the project to China to build but Modi government has made clear that it will not buy power if China builds the dam.
Water unites the countries and divides the countries as well. The water sharing issues have been adversely affecting bilateral relationship between India and Nepal for almost a century now. People in Nepal continue to believe that India has been unfair and unjust while ‘exploiting’ their water resources. Disagreement over water resource development has been the constant and dominant reason for the anti-India constituency to gain strength in Nepal. With the blessings of China, it is not reluctant anymore to challenge India. Prime Minister Oli’s visit to India in this backdrop is not going to bring any change to the pitiable status of the bilateral relationship. Oli politically benefits by opposing India rather than being seen by his supporters as an Indian ally. If India wants to keep China out of a democratic Nepal, it needs to find ways to build goodwill and trust among the people of Nepal. The first step in that direction for India will be to find a formula of developing Nepal’s water, which will be perceived by Nepalese fair and just. It is not Oli or China, it is water which is the key for India to keep Nepal at her side.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. )