Why don’t they like us?” This is the agonising question that Prime Minister Narendra Modi once asked an ambassador of India to Nepal. Coming from the PM, the question is obviously salient. Answering it with a long-term vision cannot be postponed indefinitely, though the answer may be a layered and complex one and not admit of being put together in one shot as a single compact whole but over a finite time horizon after careful deliberation.
Nevertheless, if a question is seen as having attained immediacy or maturity, in the India-Nepal case the time is now. And the reason is China. Our northern neighbour is not any more just another regional power. It is a powerful and aggressive superpower whose rise has caused uncertainties on the international stage. Under its present leadership, it also seems to revel in conducting itself as a teenager who is raring to go.
Ambassador Ranjit Rae, to whom Prime Minister Modi posed the difficult —and disconcerting — question, has put together his nuanced thoughts in his relatively recent book on Nepal, Kathmandu Dilemma (Vintage, 2021), with the sub-title “Resetting India-Nepal Ties”. A question such as this needs reflection by an orchestra of specialists and practitioners of statecraft in a range of fields in order to fetch meaningful responses which, when put into play, will impact India’s external relations in a comprehensive manner.
It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that Beijing sees its primary competition on the world stage as being with the United States, and is seeking to expand in all directions physically. It is also making concerted efforts to leave its impress in the world economically, and coerce or cajole big or small countries politically in order to be better padded with resources to compete more effectively with America and its Western allies on every turf, not just its immediate periphery.
As for Nepal, the changing constellation of forces in the world has come as a godsend. Kathmandu has elevated its ties to Beijing to strategic levels and the same is true in the other direction — Beijing’s perception and long-term vision of its relationship with Kathmandu is wholly strategic. Unlike in the past, China no longer counsels Nepal to keep on good terms with India.
Instead, it arms Nepal, conducts military drills with it, trains its military and paramilitary police, builds a trans-Himalayan railway and road network to reach the Indian border areas in the Nepali Terai or lowlands, possibly ferrying China’s soldiers — and also appears to have created sufficient conditions for Nepal to manufacture a boundary dispute with India at three points, going to the extent of amending its Constitution in order to change its map. While talks are being sought to be conducted with New Delhi to sort out the issue, these are likely to get nowhere until Nepal’s parliamentary sanction to the cartographic aggression is undone.
The sea change in Nepal’s relationship with China will, by the logic of things, disturb ties with India. It does not appear that the civilisational and cultural connection between the people of the two nations, nurtured mutually over centuries, is going to be enough of a bulwark.
China’s objective is to create complications for India in every conceivable way. Beijing’s military expansion into eastern Ladakh, its military moves in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, and its overbearing military moves in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan are intended to corner India and impress its neighbours that misfortune can strike nations that have no mind to accept Chinese hegemony.
In recent decades, Pakistan has found that its regional goals have coalesced fully with China’s in the context of India. Is Nepal launched on a similar trajectory? And, are Pakistan and Nepal likely to pool energies with China to discomfit India? These cannot any more be considered distant questions. How India deals with China will therefore be watched all around, especially in the neighbourhood. Also, how New Delhi conducts its affairs with Kathmandu in the light of recent developments — using an array of instruments — will also impact how far Nepal will go in its tantalising waltz with China.
The recent Parliament election has brought about an unwholesome government which is a product of skullduggery. Pushpa Kumar Dahal “Prachanda”, the ultra-pragmatic former Maoist guerrilla leader, has once again mounted the podium as Prime Minister by tricking the Nepali Congress, his pre-election partner, and teaming up with the other side led by Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), whose leader is K.P. Sharma Oli, who as Prime Minister in 2016 had inaugurated the new era of tight embrace in Nepal-China relations.
Along with the monarchy since the days of King Mahendra, the Communists of different shades have been Nepal’s core anti-India constituency, whipping up nationalistic hysteria as needed. With the monarchy now history, that mantle now falls squarely on the Communists who, regrettably, have shown little stomach for policies that benefit the poorer sections. Mr Oli, in particular, has even shown disdain for the aspirations of two-thirds of his country’s ethnic population, such as the Madhesis of the Terai and the Janjatis. He will, in effect, be driving policy even if Mr Prachanda has manoeuvred his way to becoming Prime Minister.
Nepal’s new masters have let money talk louder than guns, and this seems to suit China just fine. Allegations of far-reaching corruption have naturally swirled as contracts have been signed with Chinese entities for sums that are larger than what was initially bid — truly an extraordinary state of affairs. As Beijing goes about getting infrastructure contracts, including airfields, and massive trans-Himalayan projects, the big boys appear to be on a self-aggrandisement spree.
The newly-cobbled Prachanda government is a hotch-potch of so-called Communists, erstwhile monarchists in the post-monarchy age, some vague socialist elements as well as smaller parties that claim to speak up against corruption, besides a clutch of motley independents. When no principles are involved, this is a recipe for disaster.
As for ideology and principles, the leaders in Beijing have sent their commissars down to Kathmandu to re-fashion the Nepal Communists’ thought and organisational structure on the lines of China’s own as a wholesale re-education exercise has been mounted with the acquiescence of Nepal’s political masters. In so many ways, the present government may be the most negative for the people of Nepal, leave alone the relationship with India.